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  • Jonathan Kalb

"Judgement Day": Illusions of Grandeur

Two years ago, the British director Richard Jones brought a stunning production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape to the Park Avenue Armory that set a new bar for theatrical use of that venue’s famously cavernous space. His Hairy Ape—reconceived from a proscenium version done at London’s Old Vic—was the most effective union of means and material I’ve witnessed in the Armory’s gargantuan 55,000 square foot drill hall.

Set designer Stewart Liang surrounded the audience with a 50-ton circular conveyor powerful enough to sweep brightly colored, heavy shipping container-like scenic units in and out of view in seconds, and the actors, when not busy on those units, roamed and criss-crossed the vast tracts of floor and climbed the towering rear wall, appearing there like insignificant insects. The staging beautifully articulated the expressionistic loneliness of O’Neill’s drama, including its critique of industrial capitalism. The Armory building itself, an icon of gilded-age ostentation, stood as a strong reason why the tragicomic parable from 1922 felt freshly urgent and powerful.

Now Jones is back on Park Avenue with another visual stunner: a massive new production of Ödön von Horváth’s 1937 play Judgement Day. Once again, he and his designers have filled and animated the space in awesome ways. Unfortunately, this time the material doesn’t justify the grandiloquent presentation.

Horváth was an Austro-Hungarian, writing in German, who was killed accidentally by a falling tree branch in 1938 at age 36. His best plays are the Volksstücke (his word) that he wrote in the late 1920s and early 30s that were rooted in his keen observation of petty behaviors and lazy speech habits among lower-middle-class people. These works anticipate Naziism while avoiding sensationalistic events. What’s most effective and enduring in them—Tales from the Vienna Woods, Faith, Hope and Charity, and Kasimir and Karoline, for instance—is the way they augur imminent, society-wide moral collapse without explicitation, focusing on slogans, catchphrases, and seemingly innocuous passing observations.

After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Horváth’s work grew more explicit and tendentious. (He was eventually banned and exiled to Paris, where he died.) Judgement Day is one of his later parables about collective responsibility and guilt. To me, these plays are comparatively obvious and preachy, alas, and the sleek and efficient new version of Judgement Day by Christopher Shinn that Jones is using does nothing to alleviate this. Judgement Day does have its fans. London critics swooned for Stephen Daldry’s production 30 years ago, and for James McDonald’s in 2009. If you swoon for, say, a didactic fable like Dürrenmatt’s The Visit or Brecht homilies like Roundheads and Peakheads and Fear and Misery in the Third Reich, then this may be the play for you.

Judgement Day centers on a conscientious and well-liked small-town stationmaster named Hudetz, played by Luke Kirby (an Emmy-winner for his portrayal of Lenny Bruce on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel). Hudetz causes a train accident that kills 18 people when he fails to throw a switch because a flirtatious girl named Anna (Susannah Perkins) is distracting him. The local people dislike Hudetz’s older wife (Alyssa Bresnahan) and therefore scorn her when she tells the truth about the incident. Anna at first perjures herself to clear him, and then that goes terribly wrong. The rest of the drama follows the backbiting, rumormongering, and morally corrosive groupthink that surface in the town’s shifting reactions to the case.

Jones has staged this story on and around a pair of massive, plywood-covered constructions vaguely shaped like children’s blocks and surrounded by lifesize cutout trees and fog (set design by Paul Steinberg). Forty feet tall and at least twice as long, these constructions have windows and arches and hinges that open on multi-floor rooms. Thus, depending on how they’re moved about the polished reflective floor (by techies with powerful lifting devices) they can serve as walls, interiors or landscape features like a railway viaduct.

The action is wisely left in the 1930s (it wouldn’t wash any later). Severe expressionist lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin (who also designed The Hairy Ape) amplifies all the emotions as the actors dash and march and creep across enormous distances in nightscape environments. A moodily modern-classic sound design by Drew Levy helps fill the time it takes to traverse these distances and also helps sear the stunning pictures in memory.

Particularly spectacular and amusing is the way Jones handles the express trains passing through the station without stopping. No train is ever seen. A locomotive sound slowly builds to a deafening roar as lights flicker on the wall and the people waiting on the platform bend sharply and suddenly in the same direction as if blasted by a hurricane wind. This is beautiful, violent, and unforgettable.

Powerful and clever as such effects are, however, they are powerless to deepen the play’s cursorily sketched characters, or to bring real surprise to the action. What’s more, though the performances by Kirby, Perkins and others (such as Harriet Harris, who plays the local busybody Frau Liemgruber) add wonderful nuance to their roles, the actors are for the most part too far away and absorbed into the killer stage pictures for us to appreciate them as individuals. That distancing effect severely restricts the play’s horror, which is all about what happens to individuals when they’re subsumed into crowds.

Judgement Day does retain some warning value, as its admirers insist, as a harbinger of the alarming moral failures we are witnessing and contending with today. The problem is that its small-town, petty bourgeois milieu isn’t a very strong parallel to our urbane cynicism, and its characters’ questions about guilt and responsibility feel simple and quaint beside our internet-enhanced crowd horrors: you know, the Russian trolls, the cancel mobs, and the mass resistance to self-evident facts that sustains a ruthlessly unscrupulous, media-savvy President. Proto-Nazis are horrible, yes, but the people in this play just don’t feel threatening enough as a group right now to deserve their monumental frame.

Photos: Stephanie Berger

By Ödön von Horváth

Directed by Richard Jones

Park Avenue Armory

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