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Jewish Journal

A Survivor’s ‘Stories’

After rejecting Hollywood, Linda Lavin has found acclaim on Broadway and now at the Geffen

by Naomi Pfefferman

May 20, 1999 | 8:00 pm

Linda Lavin has some advice for Ruth Steiner, the aging Jewish intellectual she portrays in Donald Margulies' Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama, "Collected Stories," at the Geffen Playhouse.

Be wary of writers. They're always desperately looking for material. "If you don't want your stories to be told, you have to be careful to whom you tell them," says the actress, who received a 1998 Tony nomination for playing Mrs. Van Daan in "The Diary of Anne Frank" opposite Natalie Portman.

The fictional Steiner, a renowned short story writer (think Grace Paley), isn't particularly careful when she takes on a bright but disturbed protege, Lisa Morrison (Samantha Mathis). The student eventually becomes a rival and brazenly appropriates Ruth's past to write her own best-seller.

You get the idea that Lavin, best known as TV's "Alice," also has been burned by writers. Publications have described her difficult divorce from her second husband, actor-director Kip Niven, in the early '90s. But Lavin, the actress who is wary of writers, won't talk about anything that personal with The Journal. She speaks in generalities, guarding her privacy, her own collected stories.

Lavin will say, after a bit of prodding, that she identifies with Ruth, the aging writer who is both jealous and happy for her protege. "[You] see the young ones coming up, and [you] have that duplicity of feeling," says Lavin, who has taught at New York University. You are "excited for them," and, at the same time, it is "painful" to see your own life slipping away.

Lavin's life story began in Portland, Maine, where she felt embraced by the close-knit Jewish community but sometimes felt "different" and "less-than" her non-Jewish classmates. When Jews couldn't get credit at non-Jewish businesses, her father opened his own furniture store and offered credit to Jews. Her mother, the first Jew to graduate from a Portland high school, helped found the local Conservative shul. Like Alice, Lavin's mother was a singer who gave up her artistic aspirations to raise children.

The actress, for her part, moved to New York after college, where she shared a tiny, five-floor walkup with roommate Olympia Dukakis. Her big break came with the 1965 Broadway show, "It's A Bird...It's A Plane. It's Superman." A decade later, she caught the eye of CBS execs who were looking for an actress to star in a sitcom based on Martin Scorsese's 1974 film, "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore."

Lavin was subsequently cast as Alice Hyatt, a single mom working as a waitress in a shabby Arizona diner. For nine seasons, she portrayed the scrappy, pink-collar "everywoman," slinging burgers and wisecracks.

Lavin, too, is a survivor. After "Alice," discerning that Hollywood "is no place for women over 25," she immersed herself in the theater and won a Tony for playing matriarch Kate Jerome in Neil Simon's "Broadway Bound." She starred in the hit revival of "Gypsy," played Dr. Gorgeous in "The Sisters Rosensweig" and Lillian Hellman in "Cakewalk." Of late, she did a sitcom turn as the hero's mom on NBC's "Conrad Bloom."

Lavin carefully selects her projects. She declined the role of Mrs. Van Daan until she learned that the character had been revised beyond caricature. And she turned down the chance to play Steiner in a recent New York version of "Collected Stories" because she had just portrayed another writer, Lillian Hellman.

But when the Geffen's Gilbert Cates called about his production, Lavin was ready to star in the fable about friendship and privacy. "I understand Ruth's pain," says Lavin, who is making her L.A. stage debut. "I understand her feelings of betrayal and abandonment."

"Collected Stories" runs through June 13. For information, call (310) 208-5454.

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