A portrait of a second act

SPENCERTOWN, N.Y. — Performers Linda Lavin and Steve Bakunas have a history in construction. In Wilmington, N.C., the couple transformed an automotive garage into the 50-seat Red Barn Studio Theatre in 2007. They immersed themselves in the project, adding to the rich cultural offerings of the port city where they met in 1999.

"That was our job every day. We ran a theater. We directed. We produced. We acted. We costumed. Steve designed and built all the sets. I was the costumer," the Tony Award-winning Lavin said on Wednesday morning inside the couple's latest endeavor, The Country Suites Bed and Breakfast in Spencertown, N.Y.

The duo's impact in Wilmington afforded them the opportunity to perform at a benefit for the University of North Carolina at Wilmington's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in 2012. They debuted an act, titled, "Portrait of an Artist," in which Bakunas would paint Lavin's portrait onstage as he asked her questions about her life. The painting would then be put up for bid. Bakunas had first raised the idea, but Lavin quickly took to it.

"I love to talk and be the center of attention," Lavin said.

They've since performed the act at several venues across the country. On Saturday, April 28, the two will take the stage for a benefit show at the Spencertown Academy Arts Center, which is in the midst of a $600,000 fund-raising campaign to repair the 170-year-old building.

"We're over the moon that Linda and Steve offered to do this," Madaline Sparks, Spencertown Academy Arts Center vice president, said on Wednesday, occupying a seat adjacent to the performing couple at The Country Suites.

The portrait Bakunas paints on Saturday will be raffled off at the end of the evening; a cocktail party will also follow the 90-minute show. While Lavin will take questions from audience members toward the end of the night, Bakunas, a jazz musician and carpenter in addition to being an actor and artist, will be guiding the performance with his queries.

He has plenty to ask about. The 80-year-old Lavin has had a five-plus-decade-long run onstage and on screen. She has been nominated for six Tonys, most recently in 2012 for her performance as Rita Lyons in Nicky Silver's "The Lyons"; she won in 1987 for best lead actress in Neil Simon's "Broadway Bound." But she is perhaps best known for role as Alice Hyatt on "Alice," the CBS sitcom that ran from 1976 to 1985. Last fall, Lavin was back on CBS, acting in a new sitcom, "9JKL." The first season wrapped up in February.

"We are waiting, although not necessarily optimistically — with cautious optimism — for a possible pickup, which we'll find out sometime next month. It may not happen. It may happen. Either way, it's what God wants, the God of show business. I don't know what's going to happen, but I know I loved doing it," Lavin said.

The actress still feels the pressure when a new show launches.

"The network is breathing down the producer's neck, and the producers are breathing down the directors', and the directors, they're huffing and puffing over the actors. It's the unknown that really provides the pressure," she said.

"Alice" was her first experience dealing with that stress.

"The pressure with 'Alice' was that I was new at it, and I had no idea how to do it. And everybody else was new at it in the company," she said, citing the different writers and producers that came and went during the show's first year.

Before a program airs, "you have no idea what you've got," Lavin said. A live audience's interaction with a series is vital. At the beginning, "they don't know who the characters are, so they don't know who to root for," she said.

"Alice" benefited from its time slot, following "All in the Family" on Sunday nights, according to Lavin.

"We were an instant hit," she said, leading to viewers wanting to see the show live.

The audience for "9JKL" took longer to develop, though Lavin said the live spectators' responses were ultimately "fabulous."

"Portrait of an Artist" ticket holders get to see Bakunas' work as it progresses; his easel faces the audience. The Wilmington crowd at Lavin and Bakunas' first performance was in for a surprise.

"Steve is impulsive when he paints. He paints in the moment. He paints in acrylics and all of a sudden — and ... I couldn't see what he was doing — all of a sudden, I heard the audience scream and sigh, and pull their breath in. He [had] painted the whole thing out. He painted my whole face out. He didn't like what he had, so he lost it. And they gasped in shock. He said, 'Don't worry. I've got 10 minutes left,'" Lavin recalled.

The 60-year-old Bakunas, who did pull off that portrait, started painting when he was 41.

"I'll do a quick painting, and then I'll see the eyes are too far apart. So, I'll just put flesh tone, let it dry five minutes, and then try to get the eye closer, and then almost sculpt the painting into submission. But if someone's coming to learn about portrait painting, that's not what's going to be happening," he said.

A man of many interests, Bakunas had been driving past the future Country Suites site along Route 203 for the last five years after he and Lavin purchased a Chatham, N.Y., home. The previous owner had struggled to make a business work in the space, Bakunas said, but Bakunas saw potential. When it came on the market, he bought it.

"The town said, 'Don't do a restaurant.' I said, 'So what's the need here — bowling alley, laundromat. And everyone said, 'We need places to stay,'" Bakunas recalled.

He designed a five-suite bed and breakfast, complete with a bridal suite and "situation room" with easels and other sources of entertainment for "restless travelers." The couple's fingerprints are all over the inn, which will finish construction within the next couple weeks, according to Bakunas. Lavin painted many of the rooms.

"I only do first coats," she said.

She picked the colors, too.

"I'm a painter, and she has more of a sense of the feeling of color," said Bakunas, who married Lavin in 2005.

Bakunas' artistic sensibility is certainly apparent, too. Sixteen stained-glass panels from church windows spruce up walls around the house.

"They're all just abstract. You can see Joseph in the corner with the halo," Bakunas said on Wednesday, pointing at a panel in the first-floor common area.

He was sitting on a couch next to Lavin, facing a fireplace. Mickey, the couple's dog, rested between them. He is in a similar position onstage during "Portrait of an Artist," according to his owners.

"He gets more attention," Bakunas said.

Lavin, long in the spotlight, is comfortable entering a cozier portion of her life.

"It's not about performing. It's about not performing. It's about living. It's about slowing down," she said.

But there may be another construction project on the couple's horizon.

"Now that I've seen this beautiful inn that he's created," Lavin said of Bakunas, "I want to do my whole house over!"


What: "Portrait of an Artist," an Evening with Linda Lavin and Steve Bakunas

When: 5 p.m. Saturday, April 28

Where: Spencertown Academy Arts Center, 790 Route 203, Spencertown, N.Y.

Tickets: $100 (raffle tickets $25)

Reservations/Information: 518-392-3693; spencertownacademy.org

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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