After her 10-hanky Live finale on July 28, 2000, Kathie Lee Gifford took her family on a Mediterranean cruise (via Carnival, naturally). But since then, the Queen of Pep’s efforts to reclaim the spotlight have been less than smooth sailing. Her fourth solo CD, 2000’s Heart of a Woman, flatlined, selling 38,000 copies. (Denied a spot on Live, she turned to Today to promote the disc.) Last spring, she gamely upended her rep by playing a bitchy sitcom star in the E! movie Spinning Out of Control and a bitchier man-eater on NBC’s Just Shoot Me. What’s next? On March 9, Kathie Lee returns to the New York stage. Not on Broadway, or even Off Broadway, but to the 588-seat Helen Hayes Theatre Company in Nyack, N.Y. (where Sandy Duncan recently appeared in Steel Magnolias). She stars in Thumbs, a nonmusical whodunit by Tony winner Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood). ”When we were discussing casting, her name was the first to come up,” recalls Holmes, best known for writing the 1979 tune ”Escape (The Pina Colada Song).” ”She didn’t audition….By day three, she had all of her lines memorized. She’s hilarious, a great actress.” (Gifford declined to comment.) Though Holmes didn’t write the part with his star in mind, Gifford should be able to identify with a self-obsessed TV star struggling for survival. At press time, opening night was nearly sold out.