BWW Review: A Chilling Revival of Ödön von Horváth's 1937 Social Commentary JUDGMENT DAY
Born in 1901, Austro-Hungarian playwright and novelist Ödön von Horváth spent the latter of his 36 years warning against the growing threat of European fascist regimes before being fatally struck by a falling tree branch.
His last theatre piece, translated from German to English into Judgment Day, may seem on paper to be an introspective drama about guilt and punishment, but such intimacy doesn't fly on the massive stage of the Park Avenue Armory's Drill Hall, so director Richard Jones, adaptor Christopher Shinn and set designer Paul Steinberg have created a huge, cold, emotionally stark production that is chilling in its inhumanity.
The simple plot-driven narrative begins with a simple worker, Thomas Hudetz (Luke Kirby) going about his day-to-day business of running the daily doings at a small town train station. He sells tickets, handles luggage and, most importantly, works the levers that signal and control oncoming trains. It's steady work, but the grueling hours have taken a toll on his marriage.
On an otherwise unremarkable day, a flirtatious young woman, Anna (Susannah Perkins), distracts him with a kiss, causing him to miss warning a passing train (excellent work by lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin and sound designer Drew Levy to replicate the force of the vehicle) of a nearby freighter, resulting in a deadly collision. It's all witnessed by his wife (Alyssa Bresnahan) from the window of their apartment above the station.
Surely, this was a horrible mistake, but is it worth the loss of a loyal worker to not just sweep it under the rug? When conflicting stories are told, it's up to the public (primarily represented by Harriet Harris' flexibly opinionated Frau Liemgruber), guided by what information is allowed to be revealed, to judge who's telling the truth and who is lying for the sake of self-interest.
If the appropriately stilted dialogue isn't enough to drain the humanity out of the proceedings, Steinberg's imposing set pieces, harshly lit by Sheri, emphasizes an attitude of individual insignificance deferring to the greater good as enormous structures appear choreographed along with the movement of actors.
As with any political piece or social commentary, there's the temptation to compare the era of the play with contemporary times. Certainly, themes of technological advancements diminishing opportunities for workers, the dangers of mob mentality and society's leanings towards gender-based sympathies are still with us.