Joan Collins' busy life finally includes the stage


YOU CAN RUN, Joanie, but you can't hide.

You can trade in your flashy sequin suits for a simple scarf and sunglasses to browse through a mall, but don't expect to fool everyone.

This, Joan Collins learned last week.

"I kept on getting recognized. And I kept on saying . . .'I just don't understand this. I'm even talking with an American accent,' " she said during a phone interview from Miami.

But a Yankee drawl can't hide the fact that she was once -- and perhaps always will be -- television's bad girl extraordinaire, Alexis Carrington Colby. Now she's embarking on a new career: American stage actress. At age 58, she's making her debut in the Broadway-bound production of Noel Coward's "Private Lives," which opens at the National Theatre in Washington tonight.

Ms. Collins longed to play the role of Amanda Prynne -- the fickle leading lady who runs into her ex-husband on her honeymoon and falls in love with him again -- since she was 16 and began

studying drama at England's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. At that time, she was relegated to portraying the French maid, Louise.

"I think an actress can bring to the character of Amanda many different things. Some of the best character actresses have played it -- from Gertrude Lawrence to Tammy Grimes to Elizabeth Taylor to Tallulah Bankhead. Amanda is rather a fascinating woman, and she's quite a challenge for an actress to play because she is not particularly nice. She's not nasty. . . . She's just rather shallow and frivolous, but she's also got great humor, whimsicality and

romance," she says.

While some of Alexis' antics -- flinging coffee pots, donning red silk pajamas, bickering -- do turn up in the play, Ms. Collins makes it clear she's no longer the queen of the cat fight.

So far American audiences seem convinced. A critic for Variety wrote: "Collins gives a sly, stylish and self-assured performance. . . . Her delivery of Coward's more witty lines is as precise and lethal as a laser-guided missile."

Yet others have been surprised that the star of such films as "The Stud" and "The Virgin Queen" really can act.

Such criticism annoys her.

"I think it's incredibly rude when somebody's been making an extremely good living for over 35 years. But I don't take much notice of that. . . . I thought that 'Dynasty' was a rather good acting job," she says.

After the night-time soap ended in 1989, Ms. Collins began pursuing other interests, which led to her role in the English production of the comedy 18 months ago. After receiving mixed reviews in London, she fine-tuned her performance, taking dance and voice lessons before the show came to the United States.

While she enjoys performing live, the rigors of touring 13 cities and preparing for Broadway have wreaked havoc with her own private life.

She's had little time to see her three children or visit her homes in Los Angeles, France or London, where her current beau, Robin Hurlstone, an art dealer, lives.

"It keeps a person quite busy," she says. "How do I keep myself going? Discipline, really. This is what I was trained for." But it's not something she plans to make a lifelong career. She looks forward to taking the summer off and writing another novel.

Will she tour again?

"Not for a very long time," she replies.

"Private Lives" continues at the National Theatre through Feb. 2, Tuesdays to Sundays at 8 p.m; Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.; Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. Tickets are $22.50 to $40. For information, call (202) 628-6161.

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