A fast chat with stage and TV star Linda Lavin

Robert Kahn
Newsday (MCT)

"Massapequa? That sounds like a wonderful old Indian name. What does it mean in English?" a character asks Linda Lavin partway through "The New Century," a new comedy at Lincoln Center.

Comes Lavin's deadpan reply: "It means `Don't touch my hair.'"

Lavin's `do is blond in the story from Paul Rudnick ("In & Out"), which finds her as an affluent Long Island matron with three radically gay children. Lavin's segment, "Pride and Joy," is the first of three pieces that intertwine in a final act.

Lavin sat down with Newsday's Robert Kahn to talk about the ways wealthy Jewish women dress, geographic panaceas and the advantages of running a mom-and-pop business.

As Helene Nadler, you wear lots of neutral colors, pricey blazers and smart pantsuits. That's spot-on, as far as the "upper middle-class Jewish mom" thing goes.

Helene can afford to shop at Saks Fifth Avenue. There's a crepe dress she wears in the first segment that only Armani makes, so that when you stand up, all the wrinkles disappear. William Ivey Long is the designer, and he put the look together. He said he was inspired by the color of my hair, which is new for me. He wanted me to look like the inside of an oyster.

You were brought up in Maine. Has life ever brought you to Massapequa?

I know people from Massapequa. I know there's that combination of Jewish and Irish, but I've never spent much time on Long Island, except for East Hampton. And I have friends out on the North Fork.

About a dozen years ago, you packed up your life and settled in Wilmington, N.C. - where "Dawson's Creek" was filmed.

And "One Tree Hill," too. That's how I got there. I went to make a movie for TV, and that was where the money wanted us to film it. I went kicking and screaming, but I woke up the first morning and walked down to the river, and it was spectacular. The architecture went from Victorian to Revolutionary ... I'd been divorced for a year, and I had no relationships keeping me in one place. So I did some homework and found out that because there's a film studio in Wilmington, there was a great deal of theater. There were Jews - I didn't want to be the only Jew, the only actress. I thought, what's the worst that'll happen? If I hate it, I can go someplace else. I went there knowing no one, with my dog, and I started restoring houses.

... a skill that must've come in handy for conversational purposes when you met your future husband, Steve Bakunas, who is a builder.

I had begun a foundation and was doing work with inner-city girls. And I went up to Cape Cod to do this work in Harwich. This woman who runs the theater said, "I have a friend who just moved to Wilmington from Los Angeles. He's handsome, he's talented, he's an artist." I said, "Have him call me." Long story short, we left each other messages for a week and met the following Sunday for coffee. That was eight years ago, and we haven't been apart since.

Good for you.

It was good for me, and it was a surprise, that love came into my life - a relationship I didn't think I was willing to have, or capable of having. I'd been through two marriages, and thought, well, maybe it was over for me, as far as romance was concerned. And I met this man who is a lovely human being, and sexy and good-looking and talented. We have a lot to say to each other.

One of your pet projects down there is the Red Barn Studio Theater, in which you both perform. How'd that come about?

An automotive garage came on the market on a corner lot in the middle of a parking lot. We have a friend who's an actor in Los Angeles, and he asked us if he could use the space to give some classes, and we went, "That's it! This is a theater." So Steve converted it into a 50-seat theater. He designs and builds all the sets, and I put together the ad book. We opened a year ago, with "Doubt."

Did you play the nun?

And Steve was the priest. It was a complete sellout. We did it for three weekends. People are coming to see what we're doing there, even if I'm not in it. Right now they're rehearsing "Glengarry Glen Ross." ... The great thing about having our own theater is, we can do it when we want. For instance, my daughter's being married on the North Fork in November, so that weekend we won't do a show on Thursday and Friday night. We'll just close down.

A North Fork wedding? Really?

Yeah, but I'm not gonna go into anything about that. It's just to say, we have our own mom-and-pop theater business that we can do whenever we want.

At least in "The New Century" you get to wear nicer clothes than Alice Hyatt ever did - she was the aspiring singer who worked at Mel's Diner in the 1976-1985 TV series "Alice." Do you keep in touch with anyone from those days?

Celia Weston (who played Jolene) and I are good friends. Celia always invites me to come to the dog show here, which is something I love doing.





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