by Carol Rocamora
Once in a while, a powerful play blows in from the past to hit you with the force of a gale wind.
Such is the case of Judgment Day, Ödön von Horváth’s chilling 1937 moral fable about a crime unwittingly committed by a stationmaster in a small town near the Czech-German border. Adapted for the Park Avenue Armory by Christopher Shinn in a thrilling production directed by Richard Jones, it’s a dark play for dark times – both then and now.
The tale is one of survivor guilt – from which the Austro-Hungarian-born playwright himself suffered after he was expelled from Nazi Germany in 1937. As the fictional story goes, Hudetz, a diligent, efficient stationmaster, is distracted from his duties by a kiss from Anna, the innkeeper’s daughter – at the very moment he is setting a crucial signal for an oncoming train. As a result, the train crashes, killing 18 people and wounding others.
At the official inquiry, Hudetz and Anna perjure themselves, saying that Hudetz ‘did his job properly’ (echoing the familiar claims of so many Nazi officials). Hudetz’s angry wife speaks out against him, saying she saw the entire incident – a testimony which his fellow townsfolk at first dismiss. But after a fateful encounter with Anna under the train viaduct, Hudetz flees, pursued by his tormented conscience and the townsfolk, who have now turned against him. He finally faces his guilt in the story’s traumatic denouement.
The astonishment of this production is its jaw-dropping scale, as envisioned by Richard Jones, who dazzled the Park Avenue Armory with his direction of The Hairy Ape in 2017. Staged in the mammoth, cavernous Drill Hall using its entire 55,000 square foot width, Jones masterfully mounts the story on a shiny black floor around two giant movable set pieces (over 25 feet high), flanked by a forest shrouded in smoke (the dazzling designed is by Paul Steinberg). These rotating set units serve as a train station, a viaduct, and other locales. Shinn’s adaptation offers ample opportunities for Jones’s hyper-realistic vision, as he skillfully choreographs a cast of 16 in highly theatrical scenes including a train crash, a parade, a funeral procession, a trial, a massive manhunt, and others. Jones’s sweeping directorial style, combined with an exquisite attention to detail and precise timing of so many moving parts, is incomparable.
Enhanced by Mimi Jordan Sherin’s dramatic lighting design, Antony McDonald’s colorful costumes, Daniel Kluger and Drew Levy’s powerful sound design (including bells, whistles, screeching brakes, and crashing train sounds), and Daniel Kruger’s haunting music design, the cumulative, larger-than-life results are overpowering – more impactful than anything you’ll see on a New York stage this season.
The 16-member ensemble is uniformly excellent – featuring Luke Kirby as an earnest Hudetz, Susannah Perkins as a beautiful Anna, and Alyssa Bresnahan as Hudetz’s bitter wife.
Shout outs to cast members Andy Murray, Harriet Harris, Henry Stram, Jason O’Connell, Alex Breaux, Charles Brice, Tom McGowan, Gina Daniels, Jenna Yi, John Glowacki, George Merrick, Maurice Jones, Cricket Brown and Joe Wegner.
Kudos to the Park Avenue Armory for not only presenting thrilling international productions like The Head and the Load, The Lehman Trilogy and Antigone, but also for initiating a commissions program for American writers like Christopher Shinn (adapter of Judgment Day) as well as Lynn Nottage and Brendan Jacob-Jenkins for future projects.
Meanwhile, as directed by Jones, Judgment Day will remind you of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit (1956), another powerful play about good and evil, moral ambiguity, crime and punishment, the individual vs society. Shinn’s timely adaptation of Judgment Day leaves you with haunting questions about truth, conscience, and responsibility to society despite the personal cost. These are the very questions that resonate sharply and urgently in today’s turbulent times.
As Shinn says in a recent interview, Hudetz’s small town in Germany, c. 1937, reminds him of contemporary America– a place, he says, without a moral center. “Nobody quite knows where to look for how it will get better.”
Photos: Stephanie Berger
Judgment Day by Ödön von Horváth, directed by Richard Jones, at the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue, through January 10
Run time: 1 hr. 30 min. (no intermission)