Arthur, Arthur : Bea Arthur, star of 'Maude' and 'The Golden Girls,' has sworn off episodic television but has kinder words for theater--and the play she's committed to see through to Broadway.

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

She pads barefoot out of her front door, her regal carriage hidden by baggy pants and a loose blouse. With a demure handshake and warm hello, she invites a guest inside, where, once through the portal, she mumbles something about a stew on the stove before offering cold drinks.

Gracious and unpretentious, the actress seems almost imperceptibly harried--as if she's slightly uncomfortable with the prospect of the impending interview, or maybe even a bit shy.

Shy? The woman known all over the world as that take-no-prisoners 1970s go-getter Maude?

Yes. Don't confuse actress Beatrice Arthur with her small-screen persona. Cashmere to Maude's scratchy wool, Arthur is a delicate and nearly self-effacing presence--much softer in person than she appears on screen.

"She's very vulnerable," says veteran actress Renee Taylor. "I don't think I've ever seen that in Maude. I was surprised how girlish she really is."

Arthur is, in fact, bemused by her enduring fame as a standard-bearer of women's lib. Some people may seek icon status, but others, it seems, have it thrust upon them.

"The Joan of Arc of the feminist movement, right?" she says, laughing ironically at the gap between the real Bea Arthur and her Maude-esque image. "I don't know what to say about that. I'm a tall lady with a deep voice, and it just happened that way."

Of course, it isn't only "Maude." The public tends to assume not only that Arthur shares her characters' ways but that she chose her major roles for their social significance.

"Everybody said, 'Is that what attracted you to "Golden Girls," the fact that it deals with older women and coping?' " Arthur says. "No. When I first read the script I didn't even think they were older women. I just thought, 'How funny, how bright,' and I loved the characters."

Whether it was earned or not, you can't really blame her for wanting to tone down the Strong Woman typecast. But then, for that matter, Arthur wasn't always a TV actress, either.

The classically trained, Tony-winning Arthur is, however, about to topple at least one of these commonly held misperceptions. She makes her L.A. stage debut this week, opposite Taylor and Joseph Bologna, in "Bermuda Avenue Triangle."

The comedy, directed by Charles Nelson Reilly and written by the husband-and-wife team of Taylor and Bologna, opens Saturday at the Tiffany Theater in West Hollywood and is slated for Broadway in the spring.

It promises to show a side of Arthur that few have seen.

"The character is the opposite of her and anything she's ever played: uneducated, primitive, working-class, unsophisticated," Taylor says.

But Arthur is simply flexing thespian muscles that TV never let her use.

"She has a lot of courage onstage," Taylor adds. "We try something new and she's always up for it. She takes tremendous risks."

Arthur's warm-hued and inviting living room is at once arty and homey, filled with antiques, objets d'art and other mementos. On the piano there are childhood pictures of her two grown sons: Matthew and Daniel Saks (sons of Arthur's former husband, Tony-winning director Gene Saks), the latter of whom is designing the set for "Bermuda."

Through the window behind the piano, there's a wide expanse of lawn, punctuated occasionally by two roving but affable Dobermans. Chairs and a small table form an intimate conversation group near the window, in a corner of the woodsy Westside home where Arthur has lived for 20 years.

She sits forward in her chair, flops back, then sits forward on the edge again, searching, perhaps, for a pose that aptly conveys the mix of exhaustion and exhilaration that she feels today.

"Here I am--tired, I cannot tell you!" she says. "This would not be so grueling if we weren't still writing. Every day, things change. So it's been a maddening experience, but such fun I can't tell you."

Taylor and Bologna, who have been writing together for 27 of the 29 years they've been married, gave Arthur the script around Christmastime last year. The actress had been in a film ("Lovers and Other Strangers") that was based on a Taylor-Bologna play, but she had never worked with the couple.

Although she had fielded a number of theater offers before, this one was different.

"I like the outrageousness of this play," Arthur says. "And of course I like the evolvement of the characters."

Arthur hadn't been on the boards since 1985, when she appeared at Lincoln Center in Woody Allen's "The Floating Light Bulb." And with the exception of the Allen play, she says, "I haven't done any real stage since 1972 when I came out to do 'Maude.' "

"Bermuda Avenue Triangle" focuses on two widowed women who buy their daughters a condominium and then are forced to live there. The comedy premiered in February at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, where it played two three-week engagements before moving on to a one-month run at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit.

It has been a work in progress along the way. "Originally, it was a four-character play, now it's six," Arthur says. "When we did it in Coconut Grove and Detroit, the daughters of the two women were never there. It's since been realized that the daughters should be seen."

Such changes don't make life any easier for the cast, and Arthur in particular.

"I'm not used to it, because with a sitcom you have five days to put on a new one-act play," she says. "And actually, only three of those days are spent working on the piece, because the fourth day is camera blocking and the fifth day you do two shows in front of a live audience."

Yet Arthur has signed on for the long haul anyway: "We are working on this play for Broadway, instead of taking it to Philadelphia or Boston or wherever. Renee is working on the sitcom 'The Nanny,' so she has to be here for the television season."

Speaking of theater, Arthur is suddenly inspired, mid-interview, to share one of the many mementos that fill her home. "Come here, let me show you," she beckons, leading the way toward a sunken dining area adjacent to the living room.

There, hanging on the wall in a dim corner, is a beautiful mahogany-colored photograph mounted and varnished so that it looks more like a painting. Several men and women in Greek costume are looking up toward a longhaired beauty whose torso rises heroically above the heads and shoulders of the others.

The actress starring in this production of "Lysistrata" is none other than a young Bea Arthur, surrounded by her classmates--including the future Tony Curtis, a young Sylvia Miles and yet-to-be-famous others. The play was one of many in which Arthur performed during her days at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School, in 1940s New York, where she studied under the aegis of famed theater director-theoretician Erwin Piscator.

Arthur was born in New York but raised, during the Depression, in a small town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; she returned to New York to study theater at the New School.

"When I got there, they took one look at this tall girl and gave me all these heroines to play: Clytemnestra, Katherina in 'Taming of the Shrew,' Lady Macbeth, Gertrude in 'Hamlet,' " she recalls.

It was a classical training that still serves her today, but it wasn't exactly a meal ticket: "When I got out of school, nobody on Broadway was going to hire anybody who played Shakespeare."

So, Arthur began to sing in nightclubs, and that led to other work, including performing in sketch comedy shows and Off Broadway musical revues.

Her first Equity job was as a standby for Tallulah Bankhead in the Ziegfeld Follies, but Arthur's real breakthrough came in a 1954 Off Broadway production of "Threepenny Opera."

In 1964, she created the role of Yenta in "Fiddler on the Roof," and in 1966, she won a Tony for her performance as Vera Charles, opposite Angela Lansbury in "Mame." She re-created that role on film and has worked steadily since.

"Of course, there was so much theater then," the actress says of her early career--she good-naturedly gives her age only as "old" but is 70 or 71, judging from previous reports. "There are very few real theater-lovers anymore, and I am a theater-lover."

No matter how Arthur may adore the footlights, though, it is for her TV work that she will no doubt be most widely remembered. She won Emmy awards for both of her popular series, "Maude" and "The Golden Girls."

With both shows, however, even she claims to have been surprised by the success.

"With 'Maude,' it was the beginning of the feminist movement," Arthur says. "I just came out one week to do an 'All in the Family' [from which it was spun off]. I had no idea that it was going to take off that way."

Similarly, "Golden Girls" premiered in 1985 and Arthur ended up spending seven years on that series.

"As far as 'Golden Girls,' I really don't know how that happened," she says. "They were told it would never work. Then I had to quit to get out of it, it was so successful."

At least part of the success of both series could be credited to the craftsmanship of Arthur and her cast-mates, most of whom were from theater.

"With both of my TV things, we worked in front of live audiences," she says. "We would do a show as though it were a play, without stopping."

There were ways, however, that TV circumscribed the use of acting technique.

"We would have a run-through, and if something didn't get a laugh, they would automatically drop it and rewrite," Arthur says. "Whereas in theater, you're given the luxury of playing it, performance after performance, to work on it."

Yet TV also can be more forgiving than theater.

"The only real difference is you deal with critics when you deal with theater," Arthur says. "They can do a lot of damage. I don't know how it will be in a [small L.A. theater], but certainly when you talk about New York theater [and] London theater, all you need is a couple of bad reviews and nobody comes and that's it."

Still, theater can't ever bring the kind of recognition that Arthur has gotten from "Maude" and "Golden Girls." "It's impossible to go anywhere in the world and not be stopped," she says. "I get mail from Ghana."

And where some stars complain of the lack of privacy, Arthur is not one of them.

"It doesn't bother me," she says. "People are so genuinely nice. If people stop me at Vicente Foods, it's only to say, 'Oh, why did you leave the show?' or 'When are you going to be on again?' It's very warm and wonderful."

Which does not, however, mean that Arthur would want to return to the grind of an episodic show.

"I really feel all of my adult life has been spent in that little box, she says. "If a wonderful part on television came along, I would do it. But I don't want to do a recurring role. I've had it. It would just be my luck that the thing would be successful.

"I'm old enough now and also secure enough financially that I really only want to do what I want to do."

* "Bermuda Avenue Triangle," Tiffany Theater, 8532 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Saturday through Dec. 17. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 3 p.m. $32-$37.50. (310) 289-2999.

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