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A CurtainUp Review
Judgment Day
Sometimes I ask myself what crimes are we atoning for?— Frau Hudetz
Our own— Alfons
I haven't done anything — Frau Hudetz
Yes you have. You just forgot— Alfons
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Luke Kirby as Thomas Hudetz (photo: Stephanie Berger)
Seeing a play at the Park Avenue Armory's cavernous Drill Hall has become something of a not to be missed event for New York theater goers. While for me there's nothing quite like being privy to a show's debut in a small off-Broadway venue, the Armory's stunning stagings are in a class of their own, and their commissioned new adaptation of Ödõn von Horváth's 1937 morality play Judgment Day, is no exception.

Christopher Shinn, whose Dying City was a Pulitzer finalist , the adaptor commissioned by the Armory and director Richard Jones, who helmed the brilliant revival of The Hairy Ape in 2017, have given von Horváth's work a slick production that feels remarkably of the moment. — even more so than another adaptation produced in London ten years ago (review).

Though von Horváth died way too youn g (at age 36), inflation had already facilitatefd the rise of the Nazis, with brown and black shirted SS and SA troops everywhere when he was expelled as an enemy of the increasingly dictatorial regime . Who knows what he would have written had he lived to see the horror of events following his death — not at the hands of the Nazis, but by a falling tree limb on a Paris Street.

Yet, though the Judgment Town scenario plays out through the lens of a tragic accident and its aftermath in a small town , current viewers will recognize the parallels to the ever more dire political situation that led to his exile. They'll also see plenty of counterpoints in the politically volatile world we live in today.

The crash caused by a signal not activated at the railway station of the small nameless town where it's set drives the plot. The time is 1933, — the year Hitler became Germany's Chancellor. But while theres's never any mystery as to whether the station master was responsible, the trial is not really strictly abtout who did it but about the entire citizenry's capacity for prejudicial group think, shifted loyalties and dealing with guilt. As Alfons, the play's only character able to see that collective guilt, at one point declares, "It's all connected."

It takes just ninety minutes and seven tense scenes to unspool those connections. And, as the style is a mix of realism and expressionism, so the scenario is a mix of legal drama, melodrama and morality fable. The opening scene in the railroad station introduces us to a town populated by people depressed and insecure about economic downsizing. They cling to their social beliefs about what's right and wrong. Subsequent scenes showi how this works out — for Thomas Hudetz, the station master (Luke Kirby), and the flirtatious young Anna (Susannah Perkins), and for his wife (Alyssa Breshnahan), whose unpopularity in the town is exacerbated by their sense that she forced the much younger Hudetz to marry her.

Using a literal translation, Mr. Shinn's text is contemporary without aiming for trendy references. It does convey the oppressive atmosphere and tendency to let gossip morph into scapegoating and embracing lies in favor of truth.

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The Cast (photo: Stephanie Berger)
It's a small play that's in many ways reminiscent of Frederick Duerenmatt's The Visit , musicalized by Kander and Ebb and beautifully revived in 2015 (review), as welll as Emile Zola's Therese Raquin ( review). However, it has a big cast to help Mr. Jones and his designers give it the sort of operatic grandeur the Armory's vast stage calls for. Given the multiple roles taken on by several of the actors, there are even more characters than the eighteen victims of the crash for Movement Director Anjali Mehra to bring on and off the immense acreage of the playing area and integrate themselves into the various scenes created by Paul Steinberg's enormous sliding plywood props. Mimi Jordan Sherin's lighting and Daniel Kluger's music and sound add to the ominous atmosphere.

For all its pertinent issues and stylistic diversity, Judgment Day doesn't quite make the grade as a memorably great play. Given that the spectacular staging does tend to upstage the actors, I ccaught myself wondering a few times if it might not hit its mark just as well in a smaller theater and with less technical wizardry.

That said, the entire cast meets the challenge of playing to the top row of the Drill Hall's raked seating area. But, unless you're sitting in the first few rows you won't see Luke Kirby in the central role of the station master, as close-up as his Lenny Bruce in the Netflix binge hit The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. While he seems rather robotic initially, this makes sense as Kirby lets his Hudetz evolve into the German in denial about his guilt.

While the station master is the play's pivotal character the gossipy Frau Liemgruber and Frau Hudetz' brother Alfons are the charactersa who make really indelible impressions, especially as portrayed by the always outstanding stage veterans, Harriet Harris and Henry Stram. Harris's mean-spirited town gossip embodies how people like her can propel others to buy into untruths. Stram's druggist is the one character who really wants to do the right thing because he' sees everyone's part in wrongfdoing. This is masterfully presented in the penultimate scene when of those massive wooden props turns into a two level view of Alfons's pharmacy and the home above it . This iswhere the siblings are living together, isolated and scorned by the town. It's then that Frau Hudetz declares that she can't understand what crimes shes supposed to be atoning for. When her brother answers with "Our own" she rails at being treated as if she had failed to pull the switch and causing the accident. But the point made by her brother — and the playwright — is the painful fact that everything that's happened and happening IS all connected.

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Judgment Day by Ödõn von Horváth.
Armory-cmmissioned adaptation by Christopher Shinn
Directed by Richard Jones
Cast : Lou Kirby as Thomas Huuedetz,, Alyssa Bresnahan as Mrs. Hudetz, a Henry Stram as Alfons; also Alex Breaux as Ferdinand,Charles Brice as Policeman, Crivket Brown as Inspector,Gina Daniels as Frau Krenn, John Glowaki as Her Koller, Harriet Harris as Frau Liemgruber, Maurice Jones as Prosecutor/Pokorny, Tom McGowan as Innkeeper of the Wild Man, Andy Murray as Lumberjack, George Merrick as Stoker/Truck Driver, Jason O’Connell as Salesman/Trackworker,Susan Perkins as Anna, Joe Wegner as Detective, Jeena Yi as Leni
Scenic designer: Paul SteinbergLighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin
Costume designer: Antony McDonald
Music and Sound: Daniel Kluger
Sound Designer: Drew Levy
Movement Director: Anjali Mehra
Fight Director: Thomas Schall
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermssion
Park Avenue Armory's Wade Thompson Drill Hall
Production Stage Manager: Lisa Taccuci
Stage Manager: Janet Takami
From 12/05/19; opening 12/10/19; closing 1/10/20
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 12/12 press preview

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