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Judgment Day

Judgment Day 


                  by Arney Rosenblat


Audiences at the magnificent Park Avenue Armory venue are provided with a beautifully executed and comprehensive program which welcomes them and provides insight as to key take aways of that production.  Tremendous thought is obviously put into this experience, within the compelling experience  of  the 55,000 square foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall to see Judgment Day before it closes on January 10th.


Judgment Day was the penultimate play of the German-writing Austro-Hungarian playwright Odon von Horvath, who died in Paris after a freak accident at the age of 36.  It was written in 1937 at a time when Nazi power was spawning like-minded groups whose ideology was spreading like a cancer.  This  divisive blind mob think and the ease with which truth can be manipulated obviously concerned the playwright.  Therefore, it is not at all surprising that  Horvath's work is seeing a resurgence around the world in today's all too similar autocratic political climate.


Horvath's text has been cleanly and effectively adapted by Christopher Shinn of Dying City and Where Do We Live fame who was " contemporary it felt, in both form and content."  


It also fits snugly into a broader Germanic dramaturgical context as exemplified by such playwrights as Frank Wedekind (Spring Awakening), Bertolt Brecht (Three Penny Opera and Mother Courage...) and Friedrich Durrenmatt (The Visit) which focused on drama as a social and ideological forum


                                                           photos by Stephanie Berger


The challenge of bringing Horvath's words to life has been undertaken by respected British director Richard Jones already well known at the Armory and its fans for his boundary-breaking production of The Hairy Ape appearing there in 2017.  Here with the assistance of renown set designer Paul Steinberg, who created a towering more than 25-foot high movable and rotating monolith set that transforms into a train depot, viaduct, Inn, an apartment and a pharmacy,  Jones choreographs, with the aid of Movement Director Anjali Mehra, a character ballet across the shifting stage to establish an unrivaled visual experience.


Judgment Day takes place in 1933, with its series of inter-related events launching from a train station platform in an unnamed village somewhere in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  The story ostensibly concerns the local Stationmaster, Herr Hudetz and the circumstances leading up to and following a terrible train accident.



However, it is not the story of one man's guilt that concerns the playwright but the culpability of the village, or in other words, the fickle group or mob, in which he functions, who gossip, belittle, cherry pick their facts and then pass Judgment.  What Horvath has chillingly observed is that while an individual might struggle with the concept of guilt, groups do not, which is one of the prime reasons why they form and that is mainly for "the mutual assurance of their own unquestionable rightness."



As the Judgment Day parable unfolds, we meet Thomas Hudetz (Luke Kirby), the stationmaster and jack-of-all trades who singly maintains the depot of a small village stop.  This includes providing relevant signals to the trains as they pass through the station.  Hudetz moves as if he's a mechanical extension of the levers he pulls to signal the trains. While they gossip about fellow townsfolk and share moments of their somewhat drab lives, the passengers on the platform flatten against the station house walls to steel themselves against the whoosh, clatter and flashing lights of the passing express trains, made so real by Lighting Designer Mimi Jordan Sherin and Sound Designers Drew Levy and Daniel Kluger as they pass through the depot that the audience feels like doing likewise.  A sense of doom and dread is also conveyed by Daniel Kluger's original music which keeps the story moving while Antony McDonald's costumes anchor the story firmly in the 1930s.


The Stationmaster Thomas Hudetz is already a topic of town gossip, driven in large part by the unctuously malicious Frau Liemgruber (Harriet Harris), as he in a strained marriage with Frau Hudetz (Alyssa Bresnahan),a woman 13 years his senior, who the town believes is in a too close relationship with her pharmacist brother Alfons (Henry Stram). 


Luke Kirby and Susannah Perkins


The play's interwoven disasters are set in motion when the Innkeeper's flirtatious daughter Anna (Susannah Perkins) unexpectedly kisses Thomas on the platform distracting him from appropriately signaling a passing express train to slow down because of a freight train on the tracks. This momentary lapse subsequently causes an accident killing 18 passengers  Unbeknownst to the pair, Frau Hudetz has seen the incident from an upstairs window.


In the investigation that follows Thomas, a well respected and liked member of his community, reports that he correctly signaled the passing train.  His statement is corroborated by Anna who advises that she happened to be on the platform with him saying good bye to her fiance who was boarding a train.



When Frau Hudetz comes forward to testify about the true facts that caused the train accident, the townsfolk are dismissive of her testimony because as Frau Liemgruber has summed up in the past, "She's just horrible - a really hateful woman.  Tortures the Stationmaster - the most wonderful man - it's a real shame."   For her part, Frau Hudetz, the feeling is mutual, "For all I care, this whole town could drop dead."  Not unexpectedly, the town supports the stationmaster, Thomas, and reign harsh judgment down upon Frau Hudetz and upon her brother Alfons because of their closeness.



As time passes Thomas and particularly Anna find that their guilt in the train accident is eating at their souls and eventually they become victims of their own guilt with one crime tending to fuel another, as when Anna disappears after her secret meeting with Thomas at the viaduct, where they are cast as two spectral shadows against a ghostly monolith, and she shares her need with Thomas to confess her guilt.  When Thomas ultimately confesses his guilt, the townspeople do a group about face, leveling their harsh judgment against him.


The "judgment" in Judgment Day falls blindly on its different characters as the group think of the village shifts with the enforced plot twists spotlighting how we all are connected to collective guilt. As Frau Hudetz and her brother Alfons remind us "Sometimes I ask myself - what crimes are  we atoning for?" asks Frau Hudetz.  "Our own." responds Alfons.  "I haven't done anything," she counters.  "Yes, you have - you just forgot." Alfons asserts as the play's closest example of a moral conscience.  Both Bresnahan as Frau Hudetz and Stram as Alfons strike just the right tone with their ostracized, outsider characters.


To fill both the enormous space of the Armory and the larger than life goals of the parable, Jones encourages his actors, for the most part,  to give larger than life performances.  That aim is most successfully achieved by Harriet Harris who is absolutely marvelous as Frau Liemgruber, though all the actors are strong and manage to fill up the space with their characters even if that presence rarely delves more than skin deep.  None are especially endearing, though I expect those who are familiar with the handsome Luke Kirby as Lenny Bruce in the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, want to like him in his ultimately fierce performance.  Susannah Perkins aptly transitions from impish minx to haunted specter as she becomes increasingly enmeshed in the trap of her own making.  Two other so-called secondary characters who make an especially notable mark on this production are Tom McGowan as the The Wild Man Innkeeper an amiable host on the surface and lech on the side with his barmaid Leni, Jeena Yi ,who embodies amorality with the fewest of spot-on gestures.


 The fact that there is no individual character in the story to root for, I suspect was the intent of the playwright as it keeps the audience focused on this cautionary parable's over-arching themes of the complicit nature of guilt and destructive nature of mob mentality.



Judgment Day

Park Avenue Armory

643 Park Avenue at 67th Street


Running time: 90 minutes

Closing Date: January 10