If Linda Lavin played violin, she'd be a pro at "double stops." That's the ability to play two notes at once, which seems to be how she delivers lines in "The Lyons," an acerbic yet bittersweet comedy by Nicky Silver that opened last week on Broadway at the Cort Theatre.
Lavin plays Rita Lyons, long-suffering wife of Ben (Dick Latessa), who's dying, and mother of two misfit grown children (Kate Jennings Grant and Michael Esper). They're all as off-kilter as the title (which, um, is misspelled -- it should be "The Lyonses").
Rita is Jewish, manicured, manipulative, the kind of woman populating comfy homes in the Five Towns or Upper West Side, who buys a gun with $75 and a Jell-O mold (and picks up bullets on her way to the hairdresser's).
A two-time Golden Globe Award winner, Lavin, 74, is best known as TV's fave waitress, "Alice." She started out in stage musicals, and went on to star in plays like "The Last of the Red Hot Lovers," "The Diary of Anne Frank," and "Broadway Bound" (winning a Tony Award).
She'll be singing at the Metropolitan Room May 6 and 7, and will perform in the Hal Prince musical "The Prince of Broadway" this fall. She spoke recently with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
You recently appeared in "Other Desert Cities" Off-Broadway, and the Kennedy Center's "Follies." Both moved to Broadway this season, but you chose to go with "The Lyons." Why?
The answer is in the material ... the challenge, the fullness of the role. And having such fantastic closure after expressing soooo many emotions in one evening.
You do get to deliver one of the best exit lines since "Frankly, Scarlett ... "
That's very satisfying. [She laughs.] I love hearing the audience laugh, too. They left the microphone by the audience on the other night, and at intermission when I was in my dressing room, I heard a woman say, "Well, I'm hearing myself and everyone in my family all night long."
Are you picturing certain women as you play this role?
Absolutely. I've known women very intimately who've had these painful relationships, who've given up their lives and passions and dreams, and have dissolved into other people's ideas of who they are. When the son says to me in the second act, "Who are you?" and I say, "I'm the same woman I've always been," that's a powerful moment. Children want their mothers to be their mothers. They don't want them to be human beings or fully developed women.
Rita is all about reinvention. It seems you are, too. Have you always been good at it?
My mother says I was always a resilient child -- that I bounced back from disappointment or sadness. I liked that she perceived that in me. It gave me an awareness I didn't have of myself. When you first come to New York, and you can't get work, can't get an agent, can't get in a door, can't get arrested, and nobody wants what you have to offer, you have to find a way to receive that rejection and keep going forward. Going forward ... that's an expression my husband uses. And I love him for it. When I ask him how it's going, he says, "It's going forward." You know, I even do that with my dog. I'm a big devotee of Cesar Millan. And I learned from Cesar -- you can look back at what you've come from and what you've learned, but you mustn't stare and hold on to it as if that's all there is.
Good ol' Cesar. You're following his "forward" advice -- you recorded a CD recently.
It's titled "Possibilities," and it's on iTunes.
Because you're not doing enough.
No, I'm not. Singing has always been a source of happiness for me. This is an album of romantic and jazzy American standards, and show tunes. Billy Stritch is musical director and pianist, and my husband, Steve Bakunas, is my drummer.
Keeping it in the family.
Now for the obligatory "Alice" question. Which is ... do you get tired of the obligatory "Alice" question?
Not at all. It's how I got so much attention, it provided financial security, it identified me with all the women in this country who work in blue and pink collar jobs, it politicized me and changed my life -- and people still remember me as Alice. When I go out the stage door, it means a lot. She's still alive, still around, and she's powerful. No, it doesn't drive me crazy at all. It honors me.