It's nice to be wanted. And lately, Linda Lavin is wanted.
Last season she appeared in two hit productions: Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities at Lincoln Center Theater and a new revival of Follies at the Kennedy Center. Both shows would graduate to Broadway runs. But Lavin opted to not repeat her work in either production. Instead, she accepted the lead in The Lyons, a new Off-Broadway work by Nicky Silver at the Vineyard Theatre.
"I'm feeling very fortunate these days," says the actress. "I'm being invited to the party of new works. Even Follies...was the first time that any of us had done [it]." If that's not enough, Sh-K-Boom Records will release her newest album, "Possibilities," this month.
Still best known to the public as the star of the 1970s sitcom "Alice," Lavin is cherished by theatre aficionados as one of the great comic-dramatic stage stylists of her generation, a brassy yet subtle performer who has made her mark again and again over the past five decades. After emerging as a dramatic live wire in the 1960s, winning accolades in plays like Little Murders and Last of the Red Hot Lovers, she showed in 1987 she could still dominate a stage, winning a Tony Award for her performance in Neil Simon's Broadway Bound. She did the same in 2000 with her comedic tour-de-force in Charles Busch's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. Since then, she's barely given a performance where at least one critic hasn't said, "See? That's how it's done." At this point in her career, Lavin doesn't come to playwrights; playwrights come to her. Though Baitz and Silver have been churning out words for a couple decades each, she was not familiar with their work before doing Other Desert Cities and The Lyons. Still, the scripts struck her right away. "It's a very wonderful play," she says of Lyons. "It's a piece of writing that doesn't happen very often; you sit down to read the play and you know within the first five pages you've got to do it."
She plays Rita, the matriarch of a clan brought together by the imminent death of her husband. This being a Nicky Silver play, the family is not a happy one, but it is a loquacious one. "They've got language on their side and the ability to snap back," says Lavin. "That keeps the vitality of the relationships going. They are very interesting people to be in the room with. You've got to be fast. You've got to keep up. But there's a real deep connection under that, the affection that comes with 'I know who you are, You know who I am. I'm not really trying to kill you right now. I'm just trying to pierce you.' I love people like that. I love playing people like that."
Rita, says Lavin, has not necessarily been the center of the family, being a member of a generation where the wife sacrificed her desires on the altar of hearth and home; but she is nonetheless treated as the center. "She wants that. She wants power and control and freedom and joy. And once she opens her mouth, she talks. There are pages and pages of monologue." She's also a woman who refuses to give up. "When she's in the hospital room, she reads decorating magazines."