Had the theatre gods — with their precise and impeccable timing — not intervened at a critical juncture in Lynn Cohen's life, she'd no doubt still be treading the boards in regional theatres, blissfully unaware of any bright lights beyond "the provinces."
As it is, she is now treading Primary Stages, a quintessential New York character actor upgraded to the sidekick slot (opposite Jane Alexander) in the new Tina Howe comedy Chasing Manet. They play a pair of retirement-home fugitives who hop the QE II for Paris so they can drink in, up close, Manet's famed "Luncheon on the Grass."
It has been a largely unchartered, if merry, chase for Cohen to get to this point. "The story in our house," she says airily, "is that our son went off to college and we left home." No sooner had her son left the nest than husband Ron, Missouri bureau chief for Women's Wear Daily, got a call to take over the publication's New York bureau.
"I was at the Humana Festival, doing Marsha Norman's first play." [It was titled, prophetically, Getting Out.] "Ronny called and said, 'They just offered me New York. Think we should go?' I said, 'Yeah.' So we packed our bags. That was 32 years ago. "I walked into a world where I was auditioning against people who had been here 25 years." But by this point Cohen was fairly fearless as an actor, having already logged up a couple of decades in rep and regional work. "I had done almost every regional theatre all over the country. That's where you learn to act. You learn to act by acting. You only get so much from acting class. You have to put your act on stage."
If there's a downside to regional theatre, it's that most practitioners tend to stay there. One exception is Deanna Dunagan, who arrived on Broadway last year with Chicago's Steppenwolf crew a fully formed, Tony-winning actress in August: Osage County. Another: Richard Jenkins, who logged up 30 years with Trinity Rep before movies found him and turned him into an Oscar contender this year for "The Visitor."
That kind of fame has eluded Cohen — but not the work. She is one of the most perpetually employed performers off, or on, Broadway. And along the way, in not unrelated developments, she has become a household face via the small screen.
"I was in a glass factory in Venice, and across the room I heard someone say, 'Oh, Magda, you're here.' That's the power of television for you. You spend a life doing Chekhov and Shakespeare — and the world knows you as Magda!" "Sex and the City" was in Season Three when Cohen arrived as Magda, Cynthia Nixon's housekeeper–nanny.
"I had literally no lines, but I had lots of camera time so I didn't need lines: The camera's looking at you. You can have a five-page speech, and if the camera's not looking at you, you're not there." Eventually, Magda found her voice, pushing her traditional values on Nixon subtly (buying her a rolling pin because "it's good for a woman to make pies") and not-so-subtly (replacing her vibrator with a Virgin Mary statuette). "Magda bonded with people. People really embrace me. They think I have The Answer. She has no gray. She knows black, she knows white. My grandmother. Maybe everybody's grandmother." (Her Ukrainian accent was her grandmother's.)
Early on, Cohen checked off the two criterions for a New York actor — TV's "Law and Order" (20 years of those) and Woody Allen movies (two, to date). When she caught Allen's "Manhattan Murder Mystery," she was amazed to find herself the murderee.
"Know why? Woody Allen only gives you your part, not the whole script. There was nothing there to let me know I was murdered. I thought I had a tiny role, but when I went for my fitting, I saw six outfits. 'What are these?' They said, 'It's a major part.' It was written for Joan Plowright and wasn't big enough — but it was big enough for me. When I auditioned, the leading lady was Mia Farrow. When I got to the set, it was Diane Keaton. That was when that thing happened. Paparazzi were everywhere."
A similar media circus attended Steven Spielberg's "Munich," in which she played Golda Meir. "We had to have security because of the subject matter. Palestinians thought it was pro-Israeli, and Israelis thought it was pro-Palestinian. I thought it was a prayer for peace. It was two long days shooting in Malta. I'm not built like that woman, and I don't have her nose, so they had me wear a fat suit and a lot of prostheses, but eventually Spielberg took those away and let me just act it."
Now, she has a continuing role (Tom Aldredge's wife) on Glenn Close's series, "Damages," and another on Edie Falco's "Nurse Jackie." "I played Edie's mother 15 years ago in a movie called 'Hurricane Streets.' Eli Wallach was my husband." Tom Aldredge and Eli Wallach in one lifetime? "You don't know how checkered my past is."
In the family of theatre, Lynn Cohen almost amounts to a matriarch. "What's so wonderful — it happens to me now almost all the time — is to walk into a company where I have worked with most of the people. It's like an ongoing rep company."