Long Career's Journey for Jason Robards

Long Career's Journey for Jason Robards STARRING IN FRIEL'S "MOLLY SWEENEY" IN NY

STARRING IN FRIEL'S "MOLLY SWEENEY" IN NY

Seeing a seasoned, silver-haired pro like Jason Robards initiate--indeed, command--Off-Broadway's new Laura Pels Theatre is like watching Jack Palance picking up an Oscar with one hand and doing push-ups with the other: The roar of The Gray Panther is heard in the land.

Of course, Robards made a killing in Palance's category a long time ago--two, in fact: He1s the only person to win consecutive Oscars for Best Supporting Actor, and he did that by playing real people (editor Ben Bradlee in 19761's "All the President's Men" and writer Dashiell Hammett in 1977's "Julia"). The Oscars are nice punctuation for his Emmy ("Inherit the Wind"), his Tony ("The Disenchanted") and his Obie ("The Iceman Cometh").

All but the latter role, likewise, are reality based, as are most of his nominated performances (those in "After the Fall," "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," "Melvin and Howard" and the lost James Tyrone Jr. he did in both "Long Day1s Journey Into Night" and "A Moon for the Misbegotten").

When Robards gets real, awards are often the natural consequence--but never the prime mover. Never. "Awards aren't what counts," he says, perishing the thought, waving it away as if it were the common housefly. "It's the work!" Being a man of that four-letter word, Robards hasn't made it easy on himself one bit, picking two new dramas that challenge the audience almost as much as they challenge the actors. Earlier this season he starred in "Moonlight." Harold Pinter's first full-length play since 1978's "Betrayal" was very much on the dark side of the moon--relaying a family's disintegration in as few words as possible.

Now playing is "Molly Sweeney," a torrent of words from Brian Friel telling of a blind woman and the drunken doctor trying to restore her sight. It's the stunt of the season, seeing Robards shift from Pinter-size pauses to Friel spiels.

Such massive memory work alone is a dazzling achievement without taking into account his age; when you consider that--the man is midway through his 73rd year--you realize that in Robards's robust playing and vivid presence you are watching someone who really loves what he is doing and has for a long time.

Amen to that, he says in so many words, settling into a sofa in the Roundabout's Green Room after a recent matinee. On the wall is evidence of his last brush with the Roundabout--a Hirschfeld of "No Man's Land," in which he co-starred with Christopher Plummer. "Molly Sweeney," alas, is not a team effort. Friel, in his New York directing debut, weaves the speeches among three different characters onstage--Molly, her doctor and her husband--each taking the story forward or presenting his or her particular "take" on it.

Robards shares the stage with Catherine Byrne, the original (Dublin) Molly in her third Friel role in New York (after "Wonderful Tennessee" and his Tony-winning "Dancing at Lughnasa"), and Alfred Molina, a superb screen actor ("Prick Up Your Ears," "The Perez Family") in his first stage appearance in this country.

"It's great to be onstage with those people," Robards admits, adding with a rueful laugh, "I wish we could act together." There1s a half-truth in that postscript. "The tough thing about this play is that there is no exchange. Oh, I guess we do have a little interaction. Brian has done a lot with us looking at each other, but we can't move too much. If we do, we pull the focus away from the person who is talking."

Committing all this talk to memory is--in Palance parlance--bench-pressing for the brain, a form of psychic flexing. "I'd read it several times, but I couldn't get to the actual memory work until I got comfortable with the Pinter play. When that happened, I did it every day between matinee and the evening. I did it at home; I did it in the car--until I finally had it down."

Name me another septuagenarian game enough to take on this chore. Robards just smiles. "I could be playing old grandpas in movies, crap léke that, and I don't mind some of that, but this keeps me alive."

This marks the 40th year since Robards first bolted out of the Off-Broadway blue into everlasting prominence--downtown at Circle In The Square--as the spellbinding Hickey in Jose Quintero's classic revival of Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh." It was another long and demanding role, tough to learn on a tight rehearsal schedule, and when Robards would drop a line, he'd instinctually snap his fingers and slap his palms together. Quintero picked up on that gesture. "Find a place for that in the play," he said. "It sounds like a rattlesnake"--perfect, of course, for Hickey. The mannerism made the character all the more mesmerizing.

Hickey is Robards's favorite role. "It changed my life. I'd been around for 11 years, pounding pavements, driving cabs, doing this, doing that. I constantly worked but did nothing--radio and early television. Then I got this part, and it opened up the fact I could work."

It also opened up a Long Day's Journey to Broadway. On his dressing-room table--left by the producer of "The Iceman Cometh" as an opening-day gift--was a copy of O'Neill's "play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood," just published posthumously by Yale Press. "I read it right away," Robards remembers. "It had been done in Sweden, but it'd never been done here. Mrs. O'Neill had not given the rights to Jose or anyone to do the play. Then, about a month into our run, she saw 'The Iceman,' and that was that. She turned 'Long Day's Journey' over to Jose to do. I thought I'd do Edmund, the younger brother. Then, I read it again and said, 'Jose, I don1t want to do that part. I'd rather do the other one, the older brother.'"

Quintero's 1957 rendering of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" was a landmark production, and Robards wound up being the only member of the original cast to repeat his performance on screen. Fredric March refused to do the film with anyone other than his wife, Florence Eldridge, and her role had been offered to Katharine Hepburn, who was expected to bring along Spencer Tracy. A notoriously stubborn Irishman, Tracy couldn't see himself as a former matinee idol, and even Hepburn couldn't budge him, so she prevailed on Robards's powers of persuasion. "I went out to California and saw him [Tracy] about it. He said, 'I love the role. I can't do it. It touches me too deeply. Emotionally, it rakes up too many things.'He didn't go on about it. He just said, 'No, I'm not going to do it.'"

Sir Ralph Richardson did the film. "You know who would have been--well, who was--great? The original. Fredric March. He. Was. It. Freddie never gave up the stage. He taught me that. He was my mentor. I'm following him, I hope."

Jason Robards, still keeping up the stage March, turns the thought over in his head. "Well, I have to," he shrugs hopelessly, "but also it's a delight to do."

-- By Harry Haun