Ödön von Horváth’s 1937 play Judgment Day has never felt timelier. A dark morality tale about the consequences of failing to do one’s duty, the complexity of truth, and the fickleness of mob mentality, it was perhaps the Austro-Hungarian playwright’s attempt at working out his own guilt for having lived in Berlin yet failed to sufficiently highlight the dangers of National Socialism. It also, of course, resonates in any era in which the slippery slope of falsehood predominates, and the individual often appears too afraid of being turned on by the group to admit truths that appear self-evident (if the cap fits, Senate Republicans…).
Judgment Day at Park Avenue Armory. Photo © Stephanie Berger
Written in short, pithy scenes made up of short, pithy exchanges, Christopher Shinn’s thoughtful translation for British director Richard Jones’ brooding, monolithic production at Park Avenue Armory hits the nail on the head. His evocative sentences walk the fine line between 20th-century Expressionism and a contemporary naturalism (both of which wrestle for predominance in von Horváth’s original). “Sometimes I ask myself – what crimes are we atoning for,” asks Frau Hudetz, the wife of the stationmaster at the centre of the drama. “Our own,” answers her brother, Alfons. “I haven’t done anything,” his sister replies. “Yes you have – you just forgot.”
The play examines the consequences of a terrible train tragedy, the blame for which by rights should be laid at the door of a government system brought to its knees by, as Shinn puts it, “downsizing”. Instead, it falls on regular-as-clockwork Thomas Hudetz, a stationmaster momentarily distracted by a kiss from the innkeeper’s daughter, Anna. Failing to set the relevant signal in time, an express train ploughs into another wagon killing 18 people. At the inquiry, Hudetz lies: he’s always done his duty, he maintains, and Anna backs him up. When Frau Hudetz, who saw it all from an upper window, denounces her husband, she is disbelieved and reviled by the mean-spirited locals who have always despised her, mostly it seems for the crime of being 13 years older than her husband. “She’s a cow,” snarls the most vicious of the village gossips. The mounting guilt felt by Hudetz – now a local hero – and the acquiescence of Anna – who goads him into murder – forms the meat of the drama played against the backdrop of a prurient community that lauds, despises and condemns each of the protagonists in turn.
Luke Kirby as Hudetz and Susannah Perkins as Anna. Photo © Stephanie Berger
Jones’ staging is hugely ambitious and hugely theatrical, aided by Anjali Mehra’s precisely choreographed stage movement. Utilising the full expanse of the Armory’s cavernous Drill Hall, it is exhilarating and intimidating by turns. Paul Steinberg’s massive set comprises a vast, black, reflective floor framed by stark pine trees around which a series of gigantic units are trundled by a team of nine hard-working stagehands. Set elements come and go with martial precision: a station platform; an inn; the clinical white of a pharmacy contrasting with the drab room above the shop; and especially the terrifying tunnel that hints at the site of the accident as well as serving as the looming viaduct where Anna meets her sticky end.
With pinpoint accuracy, Mimi Jordan Sherin’s thrilling lighting design picks out the cast who at times scurry around like ants. The mood is one of gloomy menace as if barren spaces have been hewed out of nature by the destructive power of mankind. Daniel Kluger’s atmospheric score for brass ensemble conveys a sense of time passing as well as a mounting, omnipresent menace. The sound design (Kluger again with Drew Levy) is one of the production’s glories, the visceral sound of a passing express train flooring the audience like a punch in the gut. Antony McDonald’s sharply observed, subtly heightened period costumes are both stylish and character enhancing.
Alyssa Bresnahan as Frau Hudetz, Harriet Harris as Frau Liemgruber and Henry Stram as Alfons. Photo © Stephanie Berger
If Jones misses a trick – and his direction is never less than inventive and creatively assured – it’s a tendency to aim for black and white in a play which is often about shades of grey. He certainly finds plenty of nuance in the central roles of Hudetz, his wife, her brother Alfons and Anna, but the villagers are a vile lot, narrow-minded, carping conservatives from the outset, the stylised movement highlighting their pack mentality. Against such a polarised background it’s hard to see how anyone stands a chance, unless you see the play as simply a lesson in the ways of the world bearing a message of irredeemable hopelessness. “I’ve never experienced as much indifference as I did here,” opines a travelling salesman in the opening scene. Indifference, yes, irreconcilable antipathy, maybe not yet. That’s not to say Jones’ view isn’t a valid one, just that it’s not necessarily the only choice.
As the wretched stationmaster Luke Kirby, who TV enthusiasts might know as Lenny Bruce in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is a pent up ganglion of emotional torments. His Hudetz is a decent man, the kind of upright, dutiful patriot who is ripe for exploitation by an unscrupulous political power, who constantly fails to do the right thing. Alyssa Bresnahan makes for compelling viewing as his highly-strung wife, a ticking time bomb that goes off to devastating effect. Susannah Perkins makes a complex character out of the conflicted Anna, with Tom McGowan suitably grotesque as her pompous father, Alex Breaux as her nice but dim fiancé, and Jeena Yi convincing as their calculating barmaid Leni. Harriet Harris stands out as the obnoxious Frau Liemgruber, the epitome of small-town nosey parker-dom, while Henry Stram makes a great deal of the universally detested Alfons, the only character who ever thinks of anyone but himself. The supporting cast of Charles Brice, Cricket Brown, Gina Daniels, Maurice Jones, George Merrick, Andy Murray, Jason O’Connell, Susannah Perkins and Joe Wegner deserve a prize for malign, self-serving ensemble of the year.
Luke Kirby as Thomas Hudetz and Cricket Brown as the Inspector. Photo © Stephanie Berger
So, who judges and who is judged? Despite a fascinating, ghostly scene at the end of the play it seems Hudetz ultimately judges himself. And perhaps so did von Horváth who died in 1938 at the age of 36. An exile in Paris, he was hit on the head by a tree branch during a thunderstorm on the Champs-Élysées following a screening of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Jones’ highly watchable take on Judgment Day highlights not just the tragedy and irony of his premature end, it offers a warning for our troubled times. Yet another, one depressingly expects, that will be ignored by those who should heed it most.
Judgment Day is at Park Avenue Armory, New York until January 10.