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Theatre in Review: Judgment Day (Park Avenue Armory)

Photo: Stephanie Berger.

The ancillary spaces at Park Avenue Armory, that elaborately decorated Victorian pile, are trimmed in holly, lights, and Christmas trees these nights, calling up a deluxe Dickensian vision of the holidays that warms one's body and soul. Inside the auditorium, however, a deathly chill prevails, thanks to its current production. Judgment Day is by Ödön von Horváth, an Austro-Hungarian playwright who died young, not long before World War II engulfed Europe. He isn't terribly well-known in this country, his vision may prove unsettlingly familiar. The play was written in 1938, but its depiction of village life is light years away from that of Our Town, which took Broadway by storm the same year. It is, in miniature, a portrait of a society about to fall off a cliff.

In Judgment Day, the rot is found in the souls of everyday people. The unnamed town is rife with gossip, jealousy, and malice; everyone seems to know everyone else's business. This is especially so in the case of Hudetz, the stationmaster. Given his regular habits and plodding manner, he is held up as a model of civic responsibility, yet he is locked in a marital stalemate and his wife is widely loathed, largely because she is thirteen years older than her husband. Hudetz's public unhappiness acts as a spur to Anna, daughter of the innkeeper and a practiced flirt. Although engaged to a thickheaded butcher from a nearby town, Anna all but throws herself at Hudetz, who does his best to fend off her attentions. When she distracts him with a kiss, he fails to respond to a signal to switch the tracks, leading to a train accident in which eighteen people are killed.

Hudetz's wife has observed the entire episode and denounces him to the police, but he protests his innocence and -- to his surprise - is backed by Anna. This sets the stage for a series of whipsawing personal fortunes. Hudetz is arrested and imprisoned; later, however, when he is acquitted, he becomes a local hero and he and Anna initiate a clandestine passion. Then Anna disappears and the manhunt turns on Hudetz -- who, in this festering atmosphere, must surely find punishment. "The thing is -- one doesn't judge oneself -- guilty or innocent," he says; maybe not, but his so-called friends and neighbors are more than willing to do so, taking unholy satisfaction in the task.

If the setting of Judgment Day feels slightly unusual, its tone is strikingly similar to the work of such vintage directors as Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, and Billy Wilder, all of them Germans who fled the Nazi regime to become masters of the Hollywood film noir, a genre noted for its free-floating paranoia and acrid view of humanity. (One has to wonder if von Horváth might have joined them had he not died in a freak accident in Paris.) But if films like The Woman in the Window, Phantom Lady, and Double Indemnity are tightly focused psychological thrillers, Judgment Day, in Richard Jones' epic production, is an opera without music, a wide-angle view of a community beset by viciousness and cupidity.

The audience, seated on a towering set of bleachers, views an enormous playing area that seemingly takes up half of the armory. In Paul Steinberg's set design, the town is represented by two massive structures built out of unpainted pine, which are moved about by stagehands operating motorized vehicles. (One of the structures opens up to reveal the interior of a pharmacy, with an apartment on the level above.) On either side are cut-out pine trees; a creeping fog sets in, a visual representation of the moral miasma that infests the neighborhood. Mimi Jordan Sherin's lighting throws precisely framed bursts of icy white light against the walls, trapping the characters like lab samples on a microscope slide. Daniel Kluger's incidental music, relying heavily on brass instruments, paces the action, every note packed with menace. The overall performance style is a form of exaggeration born of expressionism: A passing train leaves those standing on the platform thrown up against the wall, like stray bits of paper caught in the wind. A funeral procession enters, everyone walking in a cadence that eerily calls to mind goose-stepping. When Hudetz, back in the community's good graces, begs the townspeople not to abuse his brother-in-law, they turns away, their faces distorted by suspicion and disgust.

The world of Judgment Day is a pitiless, loveless place, and when Hudetz and Anna finally declare their mutual passion, it is more likely to raise feelings of dread than desire. By the time he has become the object of an armed manhunt, evil has seemingly been conjured out of the atmosphere, the web of petty jealousy, self-righteousness, and animosity breeding larger crimes. So remorseless is the play's vision that one feels certain it can only end one way, making it all the more disappointing that the finale is so equivocal. A sort of justice is ultimately applied -- if justice can be said to exist at all in this arid place -- but it is surprisingly less harsh than one expects.

Nevertheless, a play that never mentions politics seems thoroughly predicative of the Nazi storm to come, and for those of us living in divided, tribal America, it may make for a most uncomfortable glance in the mirror. The adaptation by Christopher Shinn, one or two anachronisms aside, has the directness of a scalpel, and Jones has assembled a cast willing to travel into its darkest corners. The role of Hudetz is, much of the time, a thankless one -- he is for most of the running time a passive victim -- but Luke Kirby gives him considerable presence; the actor also finds a kind of cold fire in the seduction scene with Anna, aptly played by Susannah Perkins as a restless young woman caught in a trap of her own making.

Also making strong impressions are Alyssa Bresnahan as Hudetz's wife, forever on the edge of hysteria; Henry Stram as her brother, the pharmacist, struggling to hold on to his decency; Alex Breaux as the butcher, who is too dim to see that his hold on Anna has gone perilously slack; and Tom McGowan as the innkeeper, playing the good host and secretly pawing at his barmaid. In a class by herself is Harriet Harris as the town's most wicked tongue, a reliable guide to the sins and follies of everyone she meets. Pouring out her cankered heart to a traveling salesman, she rears back and hisses, "You're not even listening -- I'm giving you the good stuff!" Later, she strikes a strangely pathetic figure as she approaches a funeral bier, placing a flower on it, and staggering away.

Also making fine contributions are Antony McDonald, whose costumes are thoroughly in period and unfailingly drab, and Kluger and Drew Levy, whose sound design envelops the auditorium with the appalling report of a train crash among other effects.

Even with a flat conclusion, this is a strong, striking work from a playwright who clearly should be better known to us. Once again, Park Avenue Armory has presented a production that couldn't be seen anywhere else in New York; that it delivers such an alarming bulletin about human nature only adds to the achievement, as it's a message that I fear we need to receive just at the moment. Near the end, an exhausted Hudetz says, "If I do go on trial, I'd like it to be the highest court. Because ... If a merciful God exists -- I know he will understand me." He had better hope for that, for he will get nothing from the people who once held him in such esteem. -- David Barbour

(12 December 2019)

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