BY DAVID NOH | Linda Lavin, besides being one of the great theatrical presences of our time, has always sung. She makes that point abundantly clear with her new CD, “Possibilities” (Ghostlight/ Sh-k-boom), which she debuted at Birdland on December 5. It’s a swinging conglomeration of some of my favorite songs ever written, including Jobim’s “Quiet Nights” and Mancini’s “Two for the Road” –– which will certainly be my wedding theme if I ever…
Lavin is next performing at the White Plains Performing Arts Center on December 15 (8 p.m., 11 City Place; $28 at wppac.com or 914-323-1600), and she was happy to tell me all about her extraordinary year, with two critically exalted performances –– in “Other Desert Cities” and “The Lyons.”
“I’m quite fond of this CD and listen to it a lot,” she said. “‘Two for the Road’ is a song that has spoken to so many people, and I’ve been doing it in the act for about three years. When I work in a big theater, I show a montage I put together of all the places my husband, Steve Bakunas [her drummer], and I have been together all over the world and our dogs. Ohmigod, it’s a tearjerker. It’s from a movie that I loved very much and the song didn’t have lyrics in it, but it’s haunting and special, and I’m so glad it connected to you in that way. Something about its construction is very emotional.
“‘It Might as Well Be Spring’ I sang once on a Dean Martin Christmas special, and I loved doing ‘You’ve Got Possibilities’ as a bossa nova. Harold Prince wrote my liner notes, and he said he loved all 12 bands, but that one is special to him. It brought us together in ‘Superman,’ which was my first Broadway musical hit that he produced and directed.
Onstage now, Lavin has attained the kind of rare presence that makes an audience instantly snap to attention with the sure knowledge that she will deliver both deep laughs and emotion with an accuracy that borders on the miraculous. Her timing is a wonder of our age –– she can do more with a shrug, glance, or an arched back than pages of dialogue –– and I asked her if she also felt she was now in full flower as a performer.
“Yes! I do feel differently. I think the life of an artist gives us the opportunities to deconstruct and then write down and develop the basis of a character. And being uncomfortable is the only way to get to comfort in the work. I feel very full and more confident about myself on stage. I’ve not been as afraid as I used to be as a younger person. I now feel supported by the material in a way that I don’t feel lost or frightened anymore like you do if you don’t know if it, or you, is any good. That has changed for me, and it has to do with maturity and practice.
“As for my timing? I don’t know how you can explain that. It’s innate, like being musical, having relative pitch, an ear. It’s so hard to even fathom what it comes from. It certainly existed in my family. Everybody had great timing. My mother was very musical. My father was not, but he had a wry sense of humor with a lot of irony in it. You either got it or you don’t, I guess.”
For me, her role in “The Lyons” joins a triumvirate of her classic portraits of strong, complex women, alongside “Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” and “Other Desert Cities.”
“‘Allergist’s Wife’ was kind of the beginning –– that kind of deeply expressive woman was on the page for me to interpret, the heart and soul of a person who is suffering underneath. But years ago, I did Jules Feiffer’s ‘Little Murders,’ which was the same kind of thing –– comedy and tragedy were very closely connected. You’re not even trying to be funny, just trying to tell the truth about the moment, which people recognize and find funny.
“Nicky Silver is a great writer, and this character [in ‘The Lyons’] was a gift to me. I’m an observer of the human condition –– these people who are miserable and yet have a fabulous sense of humor. They’re a lot of fun to be with, but they’re often scary people.
“I read the first five pages and knew I had to do it. I had done ‘Other Desert Cities’ at Lincoln Center and was ready to try something new, with more meat on the bone. I did see Judith Light [her replacement in ‘Cities’ on Broadway] in previews, and thought she did it beautifully. It’s hard to do a brand new take on a part, and I think the fact that she hadn’t seen it before made it easier. It’s so hard to go into something if you have a conception about the way it was done. In fact, if I had seen her before, I would have been influenced by her way of doing it. Isn’t that wonderful, that a character can be interpreted so differently and have so much possibility in the writing?”
There surely have been drag queens more beautiful and more vocally expressive, but none has ever made me laugh as hard and consistently over the years as Lady Bunny. She’s brought her one-woman show to La Nueva Escuelita (every Tue., 301 W. 39th St., only $14.98; ladybunny.net), and will definitely give those Latina mamis a run for their pesetas.
“I totally agree with you that Escuelita is a landmark,” she told me. “What people don’t know about is Mario de Columbia, a queen that I used to marvel at there years ago. Mario lip-synched to opera, and when she hit a high note, she’d lift her ball gown and there’d be a huge dildo and the crowd would go nuts! She was the comic relief and died recently. And then I realized –– dildo, crack pipe, Chicken McNuggets, douche bottle –– that I am now in her footsteps! I love it there and happy that I’m the only white queen that they’ve ever hired. I love that crowd, though I don’t love the Reggaeton music.
“But they have a great stage and a real curtain with decent lighting. These other cabaret places want you to go on at all these different times and I would not remember when my show was, plus they take so much of the door and you’ve got to charge a lot. My friends can’t afford it and I thought, ‘Wow, people are broke.’ So it’s gonna be $14.98, as cheap as my humor, and a one-drink minimum instead of two.
“It’s fun for me to put together a more structured show. I think people don’t really think of me now as a performer so much as a DJ, or writing fashion comments for ‘The Star,’ or having done Wigstock, so it’s time for me to reassert myself.”
Rest assured, Bunny’s humor is as sick and wrong as ever, as witness the rave quotes she uses about this new show, including “I laughed my tits off –– Chaz Bono,” and “My jaw dropped –– Roger Ebert.” I had one for her – “I was shaking … with laughter – Michael J. Fox” –– but she said, “I already have that! I ride Facebook like a freak and asked all my friends if they could think of others. People came out of the woodwork: ‘The worst night of theater I’ve ever endured –– Mary Todd Lincoln’; ‘I laughed so hard I think I disturbed my downstairs neighbor ––Anne Frank.’ It just lets everyone know right from the start, okay, this whore is sick, and the show hasn’t even started yet.”
Originally from Chattanooga, Bunny, née John Ingle, said she always had family support: “They always said you do whatever you wanna do, and I would ask, ‘Don’t you want me to be a doctor?’ And they said, ‘Not if you don’t want to!,’ and now they say, ‘You really called our bluff!’ There have been rocky times and broke times and downright pitiful times, but they’ve always been very supportive. I don’t think they really understand it, don’t have cable TV so they can’t watch me on ‘Drag U.’ They just got a color TV. Real country.
“My Dad’s a professor at the university there, a Quaker and the town liberal. He once spoke at our church and it had a swastika draped on it the next day. I was never in the closet, always a sissy, but I was on student council. I managed by being class clown. It got a little harder in high school with kids that hadn’t grown up with me and not accustomed to my regal bearing, so I was sent to a Quaker boarding school in England.”
Bunny came to New York in 1984 with a posse of fabulousness from Atlanta that included Ru Paul, Larry Tee, and Lahoma Van Zandt: “Everybody here then was into all black Goth looks with the brooch, and we were like the retarded flowers and thrift store group, so we definitely stood out. I was resident go-go dancer at the Pyramid for years, and one thing led to another.
“I just knew I wanted to be in drag on the scene and was a good friend of Lypsinka, and even back then she had a similar look, which she’s refined over the years, creating herself. I just wanted free drinks and dick basically, and the kind of dick I could get in drag –– straight-identified.
“There was a comic book, Bunny, Queen of the In Crowd, that I used to collect. She definitely influenced my look, the A-line miniskirt –– also not having a waist –– because if you’ve got the legs, show ‘em off, and the big hair. When I was starting, all the Atlanta drags wanted to be sexy and my look was very Bunny, a preppy name like Buffy, minimal makeup and a Lilly Pulitzer thrift store dress. All the drag queens called themselves Lady because you’re performing for peanuts in a gay bar and you want to make yourself seem grander. Mine was a takeoff on that because we were dirt poor pitiful, and I wore a piece of twine as if it were a fabulous wrap. Demented drug days.”
Wigstock is a sorely missed summer tradition, but Bunny said, “I did the Howl Festival in the East Village, fun, but apart from a few like Joey Arias or Ru Paul or Hedwig honing his downtown scene, I’m not seeing that kind of ingenuity in drag, and Wigstock has to reflect what’s going on. Of course, it had a particular bent toward kooky, which stemmed from the Pyramid, where you had people who got John Kelly doing Joni Mitchell.
“But the last time we did it in Tompkins Square, one of the biggest crowd pleasers was queens lip-synching to ‘Don’t You Wish Your Girlfriend,’ and I’m like, ‘This is top 40. This is what they’re doing in Ohio.’ Hey, everyone likes their own kind of drag, but it makes me think I’m not gonna break my back for peanuts to put on a festival to uplift that kind of drag, you know. [Laughs.]”
And now we come to the biggest drag queen of them all, Elizabeth Taylor, whose estate is being auctioned by Christie’s December 14-16. I went to the preview and literally staggered out of it, dazed by everything attained over a lifetime by someone who really knew how to work being the most beautiful woman in the world, in all of its fabulous range, excess, and, yes, vulgarity.
The rocks were all there, from the gargantuan La Peregrina and square-cut solitaire to the exquisite Mike Todd tiara and Duchess of Windsor plumed brooch to a lot of hideous multicolored Richard Burton-gifted Van Cleef atrocities. Where some girls have one charm bracelet, Liz had 20, and I chuckled at the paper jewelry set Malcolm Forbes gave her. Hell, there’s an entire room merely consisting of the boxes the stuff came in, with carefully marked IDs for who gave what.
If Taylor’s association with Michael Jackson struck some as unlikely, the proof lay irrefutably in the many gems he bestowed upon her –– along with a huge framed portrait of himself, just before all that needlessly additional, scary facial work. You gotta wonder what she gave him.
She had master paintings by Renoir, Van Eyck, and Van Gogh, but none of them was exceptional and bespoke any particular curatorial personal taste, as with the jewelry, apart from a couple of pretty Augustus John portraits.
Nearly the entire second floor is given over to her wardrobe, which stood in marked contrast to the Daphne Guinness exhibit at FIT, with its largely basic black and white palette. Liz loved color, all of it, and her choices appropriated the gaudiest conceptions of Versace, Valentino, and Michaele Vollbracht, along with enough caftans to outfit both the Pines and Cherry Grove for the next 50 seasons. Her infamously trashy white daisy hot pants were there, as well as a simple black linen YSL sheath that proved she had moments of quieter taste (probably for a funeral.)
Overall, Christie’s really outdid itself, presentation-wise. Her three Oscars were on jaw-dropping display in the same room as a mannequin wearing the elaborate Valentino gown and headdress she flaunted at the 1971 Rothschild Proust Ball. It was posed beside the photo Cecil Beaton took of her in it, and I couldn’t help thinking of the lengthy, spiteful, frighteningly misogynistic description of her he wrote in his “unexpurgated” diary. The star, however, definitely has the last laugh, as she never looked more opulently gorgeous or Liz than she did at that moment.
Contact David Noh at [email protected] and check out his new blog at http://nohway.wordpress.com/.