Linda Lavin is awash in good fortune

The best showbiz careers are unpredictable. Longevity, one index of success, entails a flair for reinvention. Resting on one's laurels, as any longstanding "somebody" can tell you, is the quickest way of summoning the hook.

Linda Lavin, currently making eccentric comic mischief in Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities" at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, has gone from chorus girl to sitcom star to Tony-winning stage veteran in a wild professional ride that no fortune teller could have foretold. It's a tale of versatility meeting adaptability, but why grasp for formulas when Hamlet can sum up Lavin's story in a few choice words? For in her case, harking back to her crib days when, as family legend has it, she stood to deliver "God Bless America" before anyone knew she could talk, the readiness has indeed been all.

The performing arts were a given for this child from Portland, Maine, born to a mother who gave up her career as an opera singer to raise a family. Lavin's early adolescence was spent trying to become a concert pianist in fulfillment of her mother's wishes. At 15, she cut her hand before a recital and won her freedom to pursue her own dream of acting. The stage is where she developed and feels most at home, but TV is where she found national fame as the greasy-spoon waitress on the long-running series "Alice."

The happiest tales always seem to come full circle, and Lavin's portrayal of Silda, the wisecracking alcoholic aunt just out of rehab in Baitz's bruising domestic comedy, reminds us of the theatrical source of her vintage talent. Contentedly living in Wilmington, N.C., where she and her husband, Steve Bakunas, are the proud owners of a small theater, she was persuaded once again to return to the New York stage by director Joe Mantello's dream ensemble (Stockard Channing, Elizabeth Marvel, Stacy Keach and Thomas Sadoski), and a troubled yet determined character she wanted to find within herself.

"I love the writing," Lavin says, smiling serenely on a couch in a backstage office after a Sunday matinee, her hair still in the slightly outré style of her character's. "Writing that combines a person's sense of humor with desperate need and pain is very exciting and satisfying to play. What intrigued me about the role was the struggle to recover from a painful past. And then being in a family of people in such denial and being the character, as I see her, who is the straight shooter."

Silda (a close cousin, it would seem, to Claire in Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance") doesn't come on stage for the first 25 pages, but we hear all about this ardent liberal's recent fall from sobriety and the intervention that ensued. ("Her liver needs a liver," is the answer to the question, "How bad is it?") And when she does finally emerge from a marathon sleep, Lavin enters like a flying saucer whose radar is on the fritz.

"Hey kids!" she gingerly chirps. "Oh boy! Wooh. Jesus Christ, you know what happens when you don't drink? You have dreams. I hate dreams. I have more Nazi dreams than Elie Wiesel!"

Set in Palm Springs on Christmas Eve 2004, "Other Desert Cities" revolves around the secrets and lies of the Wyeth family. Lyman (Keach), a former B-movie star and Republican Party stalwart, and Polly (Channing), an elegantly attired, no-nonsense Nancy Reagan acolyte, are not prepared for the bombshell their daughter Brooke (Marvel) reluctantly drops on them: She's written a book about the suicide of her brother that makes a direct connection between her parents' right-wing politics and the tragedy of her favorite sibling.

Perhaps the fizziest delight of Baitz's play, which runs until Feb. 27 at Lincoln Center and is slated to move to Broadway in the fall, is the sight of Lavin's bohemian Silda firing slingshot bull's-eyes against the artillery spray of her sister, Channing's formidably conservative Polly. Lavin's lines aren't superabundant — she's asleep on a chaise lounge for a chunk of the second act — but she makes each moment (conscious or unconscious) count, registering the pent-up antagonism as only a great comic actress can.

Like her older contemporaries Marian Seldes and Elaine Stritch, Lavin, 73, seems to grow bolder with age. But then every time I see her (in "Collected Stories," "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," The Diary of Anne Frank"), I'm always a little taken aback that the friendly faced star of "Alice" is such a fearless stage animal.

My first exposure to Lavin was through sitcoms — a memorable guest spot on "Rhoda" as a former high school nemesis who hasn't changed her spots, and a recurring role in the early days of "Barney Miller" as Det. Janice Wentworth. I knew she could sing from hearing her belt out "There's a New Girl in Town" on "Alice." But I was in my infancy during her Broadway musical breakthrough in 1966 — "It's a Bird … It's a Plane … It's Superman," directed by Harold Prince.

Broadway recognition for this bright performer trained at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. came the hard way — through a long apprenticeship of summer stock, bit parts and the odd break followed by a lot of waiting. And even after she earned a Tony nomination in the long-running 1969 Neil Simon hit "Last of the Red Hot Lovers," she had to start once more from scratch, when, like so many other stage actors fleeing New York's downward spiral in the recessionary 1970s, she headed to Los Angeles to try her luck in Hollywood.

"There was a really thick iron curtain out there between the two coasts," Lavin recalls. "So you had to start all over again, auditioning for people who had not a clue who you were or what you'd accomplished."

She tried out for everything, including the part of "the girl downstairs who comes up and tells all the jokes and leaves" for a half-hour pilot called "Jerry." "The material was pretty ordinary," Lavin says. "We called it the 'Jerry Tyler Morgenstern Show' because it was a bit of everything you'd seen already on television." But the exposure won her a two-year contract with Warner Bros., which led eventually to "Alice," the show that transformed this working actor into a household name.

"It was a huge hit and instant success," she says, still somewhat agog. "I won two Golden Globes in a row, and then was nominated for an Emmy. And this was in the day before stylists. You went to an awards ceremony wearing what you had. These were innocent times, and we were all very excited. We were making more money than we ever expected to make in our lifetime, more than anybody we ever knew made."

How difficult was it when the series came to a close after nine seasons in 1985? "When you know you're going to end — as opposed to being canceled, which has happened in the subsequent series that I've done ["Room for Two," "Conrad Bloom"] — you get to prepare for it. You get to start grieving the end of something. You get to say goodbye."

Pigeonholed at first as a musical theater actress ("Because I could sing, I could get to those auditions — you needed an agent to be considered for straight plays"), she was now threatened with the velvet box of a former sitcom star. "I knew I had to reintroduce myself to people as an actor who came from that stage, even though I was known as Alice — which by the way, I still am and that's fine with me," she says.

It wasn't long, however, before a plum role came her way. In 1986, she was cast as Kate ("A Jewish mother who redefines the genre," as Frank Rich characterized her) in Neil Simon's "Broadway Bound."

"[Simon] was looking for someone to play his mother and I'd already done one of his plays, 'Last of the Red Hot Lovers,' and I think he was a little unsure as to whether he wanted Alice to play his mother," she says. "Then, of course, there's the upside that Alice will be playing your mother."

Her performance in "Broadway Bound" is widely considered one of the most memorable in contemporary Broadway history, winning not just awards but praise approaching the level of myth. The distinguished theater critic Gordon Rogoff, extolling "the power available only to an actor at the height of her own command of detail," went so far as to describe Lavin's portrayal as "one of those textbook lessons in great acting that in Paul Muni's, Lee J. Cobb's, Alfred Lunt's, Laurette Taylor's and Kim Stanley's days used to astound Broadway with pleasing and alarming regularity."

When I repeat these words to Lavin, she replies, "Well … sometimes I have to breathe and wonder, 'Can this be me they're speaking of?'" Such modesty isn't surprising in someone who decided, in the Dante-esque middle of her life, to make a quiet new start for herself in the port city of Wilmington.

How exactly did this New England-born, bicoastal denizen become a transplanted Southerner? It started with an epiphany she had shortly after winning an Obie for her work in a bill of one-acts called "Death-Defying Acts." "I was sitting in my pajamas, and watching television and just feeling sorry for myself. I had a job, yet I was worried about what was next. I realized in that moment that awards and all the accolades in the world don't fulfill you if you don't feel that you're making a contribution."

Fate intervened. When the powers that be told her that a TV movie she was producing would have to be shot in Wilmington, she went kicking and screaming but quickly fell in love. "I was staying in the historic district, and it was so enchanting with cobblestone streets. There was actually a synagogue there, and I thought, 'Wow, they've got Jews.' Theater and arts and a beautiful little museum, restaurants and a waterfront, a river community. And magnolias were blooming and I thought I heard voices saying, 'This is where you're supposed to be.'"

She found a house, a teaching job and eventually a husband (her third). The sequence of events would itself make an uplifting TV movie, though Lavin doesn't whitewash the doubts, delays and difficulties that are inseparable from good fortune. She invokes a favorite expression to describe her philosophy: "It gets better, it gets worse, it gets different, it gets real."

"Things happen to us, life happens, relationships happen, events hit us in the face," she says. "We're on this path and stuff occurs, or we walk into the brambles and we are meant to take another road. There are no mistakes. Everything is a learning possibility."

The theater is still the place where she processes her experience. And now that she and Bakunas have the Red Barn Studio Theatre, a 50-seat house for local actors, she says she's been acting (and directing) more than ever. Having control over her opportunities seems to suit her. She no longer uses an agent ("I have an attorney for the big deals, but I get my own phone calls"), she prefers shorter theatrical runs (after "Other Desert Cities," she'll be doing "Follies" at the Kennedy Center) and she still tours the country with her cabaret act, the latest aptly titled "Possibilities" after her new CD and, of course, her signature song "You've Got Possibilities" from "Superman."

There's even a Jennifer Aniston-Paul Rudd movie coming down the pike. At the moment, she's engrossed in the politically charged meshugas of Baitz's drama. But whatever the medium, Lavin is committed to the human underpinning of her craft — how to listen, how to more deeply interact, how to keep evolving.

"For me, acting is about discovering myself, discovering all the people who live in me, finding the writing that says, 'Oh, I want to tap into this. I want to find that person in me. That person who stands up for a belief, takes the risk, gets accused of something and touches into the horror of the shame, the guilt.' It's not about putting on a mask and costume and saying 'I'm being somebody else.' How I feel about acting is that I'm showing you myself. I'm showing you myself through someone's creation."

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Master Class is a series of occasional articles by Times theater critic Charles McNulty on actors and the art of acting.

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