Eugene O'Neill's wife thought "Hughie" was one of her husband's lesser plays, Jason Robards was saying. "She said he loved writing it and it came out easy. She was full of baloney. Oh, it may have came out easy, because he wrote it at the height of his powers. But it's one hell of a play."
This was during lunch on the day Robards was scheduled to open in "Hughie" at the Academy Festival Theater, so perhaps he was prejudiced. On the other hand, Robards, who is arguably the greatest stage interpreter of O'Neill, has done "Hughie" on Broadway, in Los Angeles, San Francisco and now in Lake Forest; the one-act play, virtually a monologue, has become one of his favorites.
It's a strange play, haunting, simple in structure, but deep in its implications. Robards plays Erie, a horseplayer who returns to a seedy hotel to find that his longtime friend, Hughie the night clerk, is dead. For a little more than an hour, he talks to Hughie's unresponsive replacement about memories, ambitions, fears and hopes.
"We did it in Berkeley (Calif.) last fall to raise money to save the O'Neill house," Robards said. "We raised enough to buy the place. It's a lovely, big old house on 14 acres of land, near the San Francisco Bay Regional Park. We want to turn it, not into a dead museum, but into a living place, where people can go to write. I think we'll be successful. We got about $80,000 a year out of Congress for operating expenses."
"Hughie," Robards said, was one of a series of "obituary" plays written late in O'Neill's career. "They all had to do with the dead and the people they left behind," he said. "There was another one about two guys in a hotel room, drunk, looking for the chambermaid they knew 10 years ago, not knowing she had died. He burned most of the plays, but not 'Hughie.'"
He said he was glad to be back at the Academy Festival Theater in something by O'Neill, and no wonder. Two years ago he and Colleen Dewhurst starred at the AFT in "A Moon for the Misbegotten," which went on to Broadway, won every award in sight and became a TV special.
His film career also is looking good, he said: "I did a lot of violent junk just because I needed the money--alimony movies, you might call them--and then I decided to start turning down the junk scripts and wait for something better, no matter how long."
One of the better things was "All the President's Men," in which he played Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee. "Christ, that was an authentic movie," he said. "It had to be. Everybody was breathing down our necks, everyone had lawyers, everything in the movie had to be right. Bradlee told me one day that if we screwed up the movie, we could go back to Hollywood and date beautiful starlets, but Bradlee would go down in history as an idiot."
Robards laughed, and then it was time to order lunch. "It doesn't do to eat too much before a performance," he said. "I was at the Brooklyn Academy and this ancient old stage manager told me I was standing right where Caruso collapsed. There was this great pasta place across the street--there still is--and he had about 10 pounds of spaghetti and a gallon of wine, went out onstage, hit a high note, blew himself out and died." A pause. "I think I'll just have the eggs Benedict."