As illustrated by the bulk of the obituaries detailing his acting accomplishments, most people know Jason Robards, Jr. — who died Dec. 26 at age 78 — from his film work, notably the back-to-back Academy Awards he won for "All the President's Men" and "Julia." But those more familiar with the man's life knew that his greatest achievements and his artistic soul belonged to the theatre. Indeed, he often said that he made movies (and he made a lot of them, many regrettable) only so he could run back to the stage as fast as possible.
It was the theatre, after all, that gave Robards his career. And what a career it was. Precious few actors can say they actually changed the history of the theatre, and Robards was one of them. With his landmark performances as pipe-dream-busting, traveling salesman Hickey in the 1956 Jose Quintero revival of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh and as the drunken Jamie Tyrone in the premiere of O'Neill's Long Days Journey Into Night, he resurrected O'Neill's reputation as America's outstanding playwright — a ranking which hasn't altered much in the decades since.
Robards would go on to appear in many other important plays, and rarely delivered a bad performance, but O'Neill remained his touchstone, from the monumental 1973 revival of A Moon for the Misbegotten to later revivals of Iceman, Long Day's Journey and Ah, Wilderness!. This hard-drinking, son-of-an-actor was apparently put on this earth to play the fictional alter-egos of a hard-drinking, son of-an-actor dramatist. It's a good thing Robards took his legacy to heart. If he hadn't, would American theatre be the same? Would O'Neill still be languishing on the library shelves? Would any of the recent, glorious revivals of Anna Christie, The Iceman Cometh or A Moon for the Misbegotten even have been attempted? It's too chilling to even contemplate.
In other news, Rob Ackerman's inventive and bracing workplace play, Tabletop, gives its last performances this week, inspiring a great deal of dismay and head-scratching among the theatrical cognoscenti, who have had a tough time figuring out why the comedy—a hit last summer at Dance Theatre Workshop—couldn't make it in a commercial run. But life is not over for the play. It will have a post Manhattan engagement at the Rich Forum in Stamford, CT, Jan. 6- 14. And the ever hopeful playwright has said that there are plans to bring it back to New York in the future at a new location.
The idea that three is a charm is spreading among producers. The Stephen Adly Guirgis-written, Philip Seymour Hoffman directed Jesus Hopped the A Train is also hoping to make a second comeback. The prison drama was a hit in a limited, Off-Off Broadway run last summer, and closed turning the people away. It then reopened Off-Broadway in November, was again a big hit, and again ended its limited run on time, leaving would-be ticket-buyers frustrated. Producers now hope that it live again in May, at a slightly bigger house. One imagines it will not be a limited run this time. Fosse will welcome a very apt new member to its cast on Jan. 26: Ben Vereen. Vereen originated some well-known Bob Fosse numbers in Pippin, and took part in the Fosse films "Sweet Charity" and "All That Jazz." And Disney did this week what it sometimes does: clean house. The former creative team for the in development Harlem Globetrotter musical Hoopz—including Savion Glover, director Kenny Leon, and poet Reg E. Gaines—were dismissed after an unsuccessful workshop. Brought on were playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and director Marion McClinton, both esteemed and serious artists, though neither known for their musical work.
Finally, Simon Gray, the senior British playwright, has a new play in the works. His Japes will open in the West End's Haymarket Theatre on Feb. 1. The writer, who hasn't had much in the way of luck in recent years, must be hoping that Gray skies are going to clear up soon. His last work, The Late Middle Classes, was denied a home in London because the owners of The Gielgud Theatre decided to go with a piece of fluff called Boyband. Even the fact that Harold Pinter was directing couldn't win the theatre for Gray. The play before that, Cell Mates, was doing fine, until its star Stephen Fry suddenly left the production for Paris and never came back, under circumstances which remain mysterious to this day. The new play's title notwithstanding, I'm sure the last thing Gray wants with this new production is further japes.