Austro-Hungarian playwright and novelist Ödön von Horváth is probably the most famous European author you have never heard of. One of the two greatest German language playwrights between the World Wars, von Horváth is regarded as better than Brecht as he is less didactic and more theatrical. Although British master Christopher Hampton has translated and/or adapted his Tales of the Vienna Woods, Faith, Hope and Charity, Don Juan Comes Back from the War, and dramatized his novel Youth without God, von Horváth has been almost totally ignored in New York. In defense of local artistic directors, many of the plays have not been translated until recently. The lucid and contemporary new adaptation by Christopher Shinn (from literal translations by Tessa Keimes-Kin and Susan Salms-Moss) of von Horváth’s 1937 Judgment Day now at the Park Avenue Armory in a superb production by director Richard Jones (The Hairy Ape) may change all that.
A product of the tumultuous thirties whose work was banned by the Nazis even though he was not Jewish, Von Horváth was particularly interested in social criticism of the middle-class and warnings about the rise of fascism. His major themes include tales of herd psychology and moral responsibility. By dealing with these timely topics, Judgment Day given a monumental visual production design by set designer Paul Steinberg in the cavernous Drill Hall at the Armory, the play seems as powerful and relevant as if it had been written in this decade, not 80 years ago. The production makes this expressionistic drama as contemporary as if this style were newly born. Starring Luke Kirby (Emmy Award for his Lenny Bruce in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) in the leading role of Stationmaster Thomas Hudetz, the play offers juicy roles to several of the minor characters.
As an example of the form called expressionistic drama, Judgment Day attempts to show a nightmarish picture of reality, in which the characters’ subjective feelings are more important than objective ones. It depicts a level of society on its most basic terms with the characters labeled by their roles (here: stationmaster, lumberjack, salesman, innkeeper, stoker, butcher, policeman, etc.) without names and with their characteristics thrown into stark relief. Events are heightened and blown out of proportion to their role in life. Famous exponents of expressionistic dramas revived in New York in recent years include Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine, and Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones.
Set in an unnamed town, Judgment Day begins on a realistic depiction of a railway station. The lumberjack, the traveling salesman and Frau Liemgruber, the town gossip, while awaiting the local train, trade stories of Stationmaster Thomas Hudetz, his wife who is 13 years older and much disliked in the community, and her brother Alfons, the pharmacist. Anna, the flirtatious daughter of the innkeeper, arrives with her fiancé Ferdinand, the butcher, who only comes to town once a week. When the stationmaster comes out to throw the switch for the express train, he is momentarily distracted by Anna kissing him and those few seconds delay result in a terrible train crash in which 18 people are killed and many more injured.
However, both the stationmaster and Anna lie to the authorities while his embittered wife tells the truth. The town immediately takes sides and various characters become pariahs as we meet them at the scene of the accident, The Wild Man Inn, a viaduct, and Alfons’ pharmacy. However, mob mentality being what it is, this keeps changing. Eventually, both the stationmaster and Anna are overcome with guilt, but when a second crime occurs, the town’s feelings shift all over again. Ultimately, judgment day occurs for the leading players.
Von Horváth is dramatizing moral responsibility as well as group psychology. Who is responsible for the accident? The stationmaster? His estranged wife? Anna? The gossips? Or are we all implicated? Tension rises as the community becomes more and more inflamed by gossip and lies that diverge more and more from the truth. Using what seems like half of the Drill Hall’s 55,000 square feet reminiscent of the great railroad stations of Europe, director Jones has created the feeling of a real station as well as the entire town and community. The monumental set pieces by Steinberg (the station platform, the viaduct, The Wild Man Inn, the woods surrounding the town) dwarf the characters, suggesting that people are pawns in some cosmic pattern bigger than themselves.
As played by Luke Kirby, Stationmaster Thomas Hudetz is something of an enigma, playing his cards close to his vest, and never revealing the man inside. More memorable is Tony Award-winning actress Harriet Harris as the town gossip who sows discontent wherever she goes. As Frau Hudetz, Alyssa Bresnahan paints a portrait of a conflicted woman not afraid to show her emotions in public. Susannah Perkins is truly seductive as Anna, the innkeeper’s daughter, portrayed as a little minx who comes to regret her choices. Henry Stram’s pharmacist, Hudetz’ brother-in-law, is a veritable case for a therapist with his shifting alliances. Jason O’Connell is amusing as the supercilious traveling salesman who seeks information without wanting to offend anyone in town, as is Alex Breaux as Anna’s pugnacious fiancé always looking for a fight. Memorable too are Andy Murray as the sarcastic lumberjack and Jeena Yi as the dreamy waitress. Charles Brice, Maurice Jones, Cricket Brown and Joe Wegner play various authority figures who eventually become hard to distinguish from one another, which is how they are written.
The most effective element of the production is the original music and sound design by Daniel Kluger, (Drew Levy, sound designer). The conception of the trains passing and later the horrific crash are all enhanced by sound effects, sometimes accompanied by the speeding lights from the railcar windows by lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin. The church bells that ring out periodically suggest parts of the town not depicted on stage. The sirens and later the rising wind are all dramatic elements that contribute to the effectiveness of the production as is the original score with its trumpets and violins, often suggesting marching bands we hear but don’t see. Antony McDonald’s costumes with their ankle length dresses are firmly rooted in the 1930’s; however, the men’s rather bland costumes could be any time period in recent memory.
Not only does Ödön von Horváth’s Judgment Day have a cumulative effect, it is the work of a master playwright at the top of his form. The themes of herd mentality, moral responsibility, the pernicious effect of gossip and lies, and the shortcomings of the middle class are as timely today as when he wrote the play in 1937. Richard Jones’s huge production gives the play the breadth that it needs to tell its story with stunning visual effects. It is to be hoped that this staging will inspire others to look at some of von Horváth’s 17 other plays that should be seen.
Judgment Day (through January 10, 2020)
Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue at 67th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-933-5812 or visit http://www.armoryonpark.org
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission