STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: A Chat with Linda Lavin

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: A Chat with Linda Lavin "There's a population that doesn't even know I started in the theater," Linda Lavin says while backstage at the Music Box, where she's doing "The Diary of Anne Frank."

"There's a population that doesn't even know I started in the theater," Linda Lavin says while backstage at the Music Box, where she's doing "The Diary of Anne Frank."

But here's what really surprises her:"Some of them are even in the press. They always put "TV's Alice" after my name." She gives a little laugh. "They think I'm coming from California to finally try my legs on the Broadway stage."

Well, we know better, don't we? The Tony-winner from Broadway Bound has been a name to us since early 1966. For, within 78 days, Lavin opened off-Broadway in The Mad Show (where she introduced Rodgers-and-Sondheim's The Boy From ...), and was then Broadway-bound for Hal Prince's production of It's a Bird ... It's a Plane ... It's Superman!

And if you look closely on your Family Affair cast album, you'll find her there, too. True, not on the front cover, which lists every performer from top-billed Shelley Berman to low-billed Cathryn Damon. But check out the back cover, and you'll find that "Harmony" is sung by "Osterwald, Conforti, Lavin & De Lon," while "Wonderful Party" was warbled by "Kert, McDonald, and Lavin." Though the word "Linda" is nowhere to be found, it's this same Lavin we're talking about.

"I had studied at William and Mary to be a classical actress," she reports. "But then in New York, you couldn't get a job in a straight play without an agent -- but you could go to chorus auditions. I'd been in the chorus of 10 musicals in a season of stock in New Jersey, working with a director named Bert Yarborough. I came to New York, had been here maybe six months, and nothing was happening. I'd been living on a dollar a day with my roommate Olympia Dukakis. " "So I decided to give up and go to Macy's for a job. First, though, I stopped into the Chock Full o' Nuts on 34th and Broadway, picked up Variety to read something with my coffee, and sawOh, Kay, director, Bert Yarborough." She shivers. "I still get goosebumps when I think of it."

"I got on the subway, went to the East 74th St. Playhouse and said, 'Mr. Yarborough, do you remember me?' 'Uh! Do I remember!' he said.'Get up there and sing!' And I never had to work at Macy's."

But it was in the early months of 1966 when Lavin's career caught fire -- when she inspired then-Times critic Stanley Kauffmann to say that she should be in every musical. When reminded of it, Lavin takes on a delightful mock-serious tone. "I thought he was the best, most discerning critic of all. I do still!"

Superman happened because "I had known Hal (Prince) from Family Affair, when he took over the direction in Philadelphia (from Word Baker). I'd been cast in the chorus, but Hal gave me all the speaking parts because I could walk and talk and the same time -- unusual in those days for chorus, when you were either supposed to sing or dance.

"So, for Superman, I auditioned with my standard "Almost Like Being in Love," but then they had me sing "You've Got Possibilities," the one song the character had."

One song? What about "Oooh, Do You Love You"?

"Written out-of-town," she says, too modest to add that Prince Strouse and Adams must have thought her awfully good for them to give her another number. Lavin has often benefited from last-minute-writing. The Boy from ... was written during rehearsals. "I'll never forget Mary Rodgers and Steve Sondheim doing this paordy of "The Boy from Ipanema" for us. I was thrilled because I love Brazilian music. Last year, in Wilmington, North Carolina -- my new home town --when I directed a production of As You Like It," she says, letting us in on another of her talents, "I had it scored with Brazilian jazz."

Perhaps the most surprising late insertion, though, was that in Broadway Bound. That marvelous monologue about The Night I Danced with George Raft wasn't always in Neil Simon's script. "I said yes to doing the play (because) it was a very good part in a very good ensemble piece. Then, after we did a reading for the Shuberts, Neil came up to me and said, 'I'm going to write you another scene. I want to see her happy.' And the next day, I had a 19-page monologue. When Neil knows what he wants," she says with a raised eyebrow, "he's faster and better than anybody."

Once again, in The Diary of Anne Frank she has the luxury of new material. "Last year, I got a call from (director) James Lapine, who wanted to see me for Mrs. Van Daan," she says, referring to the wife of Otto Frank's business associate. "We got along, but pretty early in the meeting, I got up to leave. I always like to go before I wear out my welcome. You see, I also produce TV movies, so I'm used to going in to network heads and pitching stories -- and I learned from one superb executive to finish the pitch, look 'em in the eye, say, 'You think about it, I'll be waiting,' and not sit around and sap the energy. But James said, 'Where are you going?' so we talked some more."

Good thing they did. "To tell you the truth, I hadn't known if I wanted to play Mrs. Van Daan until I'd read it. I was enormously moved -- but then when James told me that the character would be deepened and made more subtle, I was really excited."

Lavin's faith was rewarded. "Now this character is less frivolous and prone to hysterical outbursts. She has a positive energy and chooses to make the best of the worst situation -- and this is worst she's ever encountered since the death of her father, whom she idolized and idealized. But she has capacity for great humor and affection.

"In the diary, she's spoken of in complicated ways. One day Anne considers her a bother, the next day a friend; one day, she hates her, one day she loves her. Mrs. Van Daan also has a mind as well a big mouth and the capacity to conceptualize the political situation. Her marriage is complicated, full of passion, anger and sadness."

In performing the play, Lavin has had another surprise. "So many people have told me that even though they knew what was going to happen, they began to see some ray of hope, and denied the ending. Gene Saks and John Guare, too, said 'I knew what was going to happen, but somehow I was stunned and horrified when it did.' Elaine May said it's because the characters seem so hopeful. It's a great testament to James' vision and (play adapter) Wendy Kesselman's skill. And the cast's, too. The challenge in this play is not to play the end of it."

Lavin's pleased to be in a property that is so important to kids. "The play is such a good outreach. The kids are all popping their bubble-gum, but they listen --though," she concedes with a smile, "they do get volatile and excited when Anne and Peter have their love scene.

"What a day it was when 150 former gang members from Long Beach, California came to see the play. These kids had been put into a class together because it was felt there was no hope for them. But reading this diary transformed their lives. They'd come from intolerance, but now they have put down their guns and hopelessness, and are now called the Freedom Writers. They're going into the ghettos and even into colleges, teaching kids older than themselves about tolerance. And every one of them is going to college next year. I recently presented them 'The Spirit of Anne Frank Award,' and what a wondeful moment that was."

That isn't the only impact Lavin has recently had on young adults. "Since I've moved to Wilmington," she says, "I've established a foundation for the arts, with girls as the focus. 'What Girls Know' is a program that, through a theater format, helps young girls who are at risk of losing their self-esteem. Society begins to shred that away from a girl from the time she's 10. All the energy and excitement she had dissipates. Even religious institutions honor a boy before they honor a girl. Now that the government has been pulling away from the arts, it behooves all of us to lend a hand.

"So I started this summer school program with Brenda Curran. 13 girls came in every morning to a schoolroom. We, in addition to a drama and dance teacher, asked them to tell their stories. Not by sitting around and talking, but by improvising and writing sketches. Brenda would say, 'Get up and show us what happened at home.' They articulated their stories, and eventually found out who they were.

"We gave them a safe haven where they could express who they are and be accepted as they are. In five weeks, we saw an enormous change in these girls. The results were so gratifying."

So we're all very glad that Linda Lavin never had to go to Macy's.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger.

You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com