At 73, Tony winner Linda Lavin shows no signs of slowing down. In the last year alone, Lavin earned raves as the alcoholic aunt in Jon Robin Baitz's off-Broadway hit Other Desert Cities, then went on to croon the showstopping tune "Broadway Baby" in the Kennedy Center's production of Follies. When both shows announced plans for Broadway runs, Lavin surprised many by not continuing with either production. Instead, she decided to head back off-Broadway to lead the world premiere of Nicky Silver's The Lyons at the Vineyard Theatre. In the dark comedy, Lavin stars opposite Tony winner Dick Latessa as Rita, a sharp-tongued matriarch who gathers with her two adult children to the hospital room of her cancer-stricken husband. Shortly before the show's October 11 opening, Broadway.com chatted with Lavin about her decision to tackle The Lyons, her upcoming album and getting starstruck by Jennifer Aniston.
Opening night is almost here for The Lyons. How is the show going?
It’s going beautifully. It comes together every night we perform it, and this has really been a wonderful process. It’s just a bunch of terrific people. I’m really impressed with the quality of work and I enjoy going into work every day so much. That’s not something you always experience.
Your character Rita doesn’t say always say the nicest things to her adult children. What do you love about this woman?
I love her sense of humor. While she’s vulnerable, she still has a strong will to live. I certainly identify with Rita's need to control everything and I’m sure a lot of others will too. The need to control things, I think, comes out of the fear that if we don’t, everything is going to go to hell in a hand basket, but everything is already in hell in a hand basket when this play begins! The family is disengaged from each other. The husband and wife have lived in entangled anger for 40 years. Contemptuous bickering is always a source of profoundly deep and painful comedy. I seem to understand that quality of people living like this and find it enormously funny. Capturing that mood takes a very skilled writer, and Nicky Silver has an ear for people’s voices and the articulation of their pain. Rita has zest, honesty and passion, but her defects are blatant and I think that’s what people identify with, which is why it's fun to play her.
You’ve had a few rocky marriages yourself. Were you able to pull from any of your own experiences?
Not a few times! This is my third marriage. I’d say that’s only a couple! [Laughs.] But this marriage is the great one, the successful one. My husband [drummer Steve Bakunas] and I have been together longer than I’ve been with anybody, except for maybe when I was with my parents! This couple is completely out of their own fabric. I can’t say there’s anything about this marriage that I relate to in my own, except that marriage is about two individuals trying to find parallel roles and connect them at the same time. These people didn’t do that so well. What this woman says about her husband, and what she says to him while he’s sleeping in his hospital bed, explains her place in their life together. It’s very different from who I am, but we’ve all been lonely in relationships, and I think this woman is in considerable pain caused by the lack of communication in this relationship. Hopefully everyone gets it right at some point, and Steve and I have definitely gotten it right.
The show is all about the family unit even when it's falling apart. Did you work closely with your co-stars to craft each character?
We were pretty much always together in the same room working on our own individual development of our characters, but we certainly connected on a creative level from day one. We enjoy each other and laugh with each other and make each other laugh. I credit that to the story and the writing and our director, Mark Brokaw. He’s very positive, organized and committed to the author and the players in a very generous way. I’ve never worked with Dick Latessa before, and it’s just a wonderful experience. Michael Esper is really a great actor by design and Kate Jennings Grant is a spectacularly beautiful actress.
Despite the dark themes of the play, it’s incredibly funny. Is it hard to find a balance like that?
You hear huge laughs from the audience and that comes out of identification, which comes from great writing. That’s why I wanted to do this play! Nicky is just remarkable and has an ear for these people who live in such torture, and torture each other in the process. That’s what happened to these people from the old countries. They felt like they had to get married, had to have children and that developed into a source of unhappiness. They were so young, and came to a new country, did what they thought they were supposed to do, and didn’t necessarily find their own happiness. The great thing is that this woman is still able to find her own happiness, so it is a very encouraging play.
This has been a busy year for you. Why did you opt to do The Lyons instead of transfer to Broadway with Follies or Other Desert Cities?
This was offered to me before they knew Follies was coming to New York. I was in Washington doing Follies when I read The Lyons, and I knew this was the play I had to do. And everybody at Lincoln Center [Theater, which debuted and is transferring Other Desert Cities] totally understood. They’re doing their thing and I’m doing mine and it’s all good. I love working on new plays. It's so exciting having the playwright in the room with you and I’m thrilled that I got to explore a new play with them last year. I love the people at Lincoln Center, I have a very strong and respectful and loving relationship with [artistic director] Andre Bishop, so he completely understood when I said this was something I need to do.
Will you go see the Broadway mountings of the shows?
I will as soon as I can! I’m very fond of [Other Desert Cities co-stars] Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach and Thomas Sadoski, and they have Judith Light playing my part now. She’s such a great actress. Did you see her in Lombardi? Fantastic! It’s a very powerful play.
As if you weren’t busy enough, you also have a new album out next month [available digitally November 1 and in stores November 29].
It’s called POSSIBILITIES after my song from It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman, which is on there with a little more of a bossa nova feel. It has a lot of show tunes like “It Might As Well be Spring,” but it’s a little more jazz oriented. There’s also Steely Dan’s “Between the Raindrops,” “Hey Look Me Over” from Wildcats and Peggy Lee’s “Two For the Road.” It’s happy, romantic and lighthearted. The album is very relaxing and fun. It’s one of those albums you take on vacation with you and just pop in the car and go for a drive.
Plus, you’ll appear in the upcoming Jennifer Aniston/Paul Rudd movie Wanderlust!
I have a lovely part in it playing a very glamorous, sharp-shooter real estate broker to Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd. It’s a very funny script, and filming was wonderful; very easy and sweet. I just kept looking at Jennifer…she’s so beautiful and such a wonderful comedienne. I’m a big fan of Friends, so I was finally working with this young women I’d watched for so long. The thing about working with people you’ve watched, suddenly you’re sitting across from the table and you go, “Wow, I know you from the TV!” And they start doing the same thing. It’s a very mutual admiration society [laughs].
How does it feel at this point in your career that you’re still in such demand?
It feels great. I’m very grateful and feel very included and happy to be remembered as part of the scene. This is a very active and full life that I have, and I’m wanting to and excited to participate in really good material, both in the recording studio and performing cabaret and theater worlds. It’s spectacular.
Are there any big roles you feel you missed out on playing?
No. I don’t really have anything that I haven’t done that I wanted to. That’s a great place for me to be in. Surprises are still possible. I don’t know what lies ahead. I’ve only got what’s in front of me, and it’s quite enough. It’s more than I ever expected!
See Linda Lavin in The Lyons at the Vineyard Theatre.