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On the Scene- 1/26/06

January 26, 2006
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Greek Orthodox? Greek unorthodox - or that's what one would have assumed on learning of the casting of a major Jewish actress as a Greek matriarch in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."

But then, one would have underestimated the undeniable appeal and talent of Lainie Kazan, who made the big fat 2002 Greek role her own.

And she did it with such ouzo oomph - trading matzah for moussaka without skipping a beat. Oy vey? Opa!

Now Kazan - everyone's favorite Jewish mama from "My Favorite Year" (1982) - is offering another glimpse of her catholic appeal, starring as the Italian Catholic Tess La Ruffa in a revisit to the "Bermuda Avenue Triangle," playing through this Sunday at the Wilmington DuPont Theatre.

Lost in the "Bermuda Triangle"? Kazan may be its biggest find, realizing a role originally taken by Bea Arthur when Lainie's longtime friends and current co-stars/writers - Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna - first put the piece on stage 10 years ago.

At this stage of her protean and prolific career, the woman born Lainie Levine laughs harder than anyone when it comes to converting ethnicity at the snap of some snappy dialogue.

The Brooklyn brash that served her bravely early on has been replaced by a tough softness that is as real as rugelah.

And this Queen of Brooklyn, an honorific crown Kazan captured at a big borough blowout a decade ago, courts challenges at any time, earning acclaim and accolades (including a 1993 Tony Award nomination for the Broadway version of "My Favorite Year").

She can sell a song - and her talent. After doing a reading for Tom Hanks and then being signed on to the film of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," Kazan was asked to corner her corner of the market. Playwright/screenwriter Nia Vardalos "said to me, 'I'll e-mail all the Greek Orthodox churches, if you take the synagogues.' "

And Kazan took the part by storm, enough so that when the film was remade for TV, she reprised Mama Maria for the small screen.

"Maria was loving, generous, not afraid to give love," much like Lainie herself, whose adored daughter Jennifer, in her early 30s, is a recording engineer. And Bubba Lainie bubbles just thinking about her 6-year-old granddaughter, Isabella, "the joy of my life."

Which says quite a bit given her lavishly praised career. Going from being Barbra Streisand's understudy in Broadway's "Funny Girl" to making fun appearances on TV variety and talk shows to hitting it big in "My Favorite Year" - as well as being a nightclub singer, whose fine voice recently made Feinstein's in New York a hot room for tickets - Kazan now warms to the opportunity to play a cold-as-ice widow.

What's the Angle? 
Does Tess test her patience? "She's not the nicest person in the world," laughs Lainie of her curmudgeonly character, one third of the "Bermuda Triangle."

Taking the icy isosceles angle? Yup, says the actress of the rough La Ruffa who battles a nice Jewish widow, Fannie Saperstein (Taylor), for the attention of a palooka named Paolucci (Bologna).

Inventive onstage, Kazan likes reinventing her image - switching Lainies? It's all on the road to riches for the ethnically enhanced actress - albeit one thing hasn't changed: her philanthropy. Descended from a long line of sabras, Kazan - "I'll always be a Zionist" - has traveled back and forth entertaining in Israel, where she was the recipient of the Israel Peace Prize nearly 30 years ago.

A Jewish Jimmy Stewart celebrating a wonderful life? If producers are shopping for an interesting heroine to portray, Kazan may be the QVC of quality performances. "A friend of mine was looking for interesting [vehicles] to produce, so I sent him my bio and said, 'Read my life!' "

It reads like an adventure story - a show-business "Survivor" granted immunity from being forced to take whatever roles offered her, picking what she wants, not having to pick over others' choices.

The tribe has spoken, but with which accent? Put her most famous characters in a room, and who would come out alive? The Italian Catholic, Greek matriarch or Jewish Brooklyn mama?

"The Jew, of course," quips Kazan. "We've been surviving for so long, it would have to be her."

 

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