January 4, 2020

"Judgment Day": More Style Than Substance

Bigger isn’t always better. The British director Richard Jones won deserved kudos in 2017 for staging The Hairy Ape in the vast drill hall at the Park Avenue Armory. That production literally revolved around a massive turntable on which designer Stewart Laing set a series of huge see-through cubes in which Eugene O'Neill's jeremiad about class division unfolded. It was sensational and landed on my list of the best theatrical experiences I had that year.

Jones is now back and filling the same 55,000-square-foot space with an adaptation of Judgment Day, an allegorical piece written in 1937 by the Austro-Hungarian playwright Ödön von Horváth, who died the next year at age 36 when a tree branch fell on his head during a thunderstorm. However this timeout Jones' production is less thrilling.

Judgment Day, adapted for this production by the playwright Christopher Shinn, chronicles the aftermath of a train crash that occurs outside a small Bavarian town when the station master Thomas Hudetz fails to send the necessary signal. Normally a by-the-clock guy but unhappily married to a woman 13-years-older than he is, Hudetz lies about what happened because he is ashamed that he was distracted at the crucial moment by the flirtations of a younger woman.

But that's just the set-up because Horváth, who watched the Nazis rise to power, is most interested in the community's response to the train wreck. He shows how the kind of herd mentality that always bodes ill quickly develops. Then he adds another calamity that intensifies the enmity. Tragedy ensues as the townspeople look for scapegoats to blame.

Once again however, the focus of Jones’ production is the set. This time he has collaborated with designer Paul Steinberg and the centerpieces of the show are two towering plywood structures that are wheeled around to create different settings ranging from the train station to the village tavern that provides the community's main entertainment to a nearby forest that becomes the scene of an eventual manhunt.

The sharply choreographed movement, effective lighting and sound design that conveys the whoosh of passing trains, the plaintive sound of church bells and an underlying sense of dread are all impressive. And they seem to have wowed many of the critics. My BroadwayRadio colleague Peter Filichia has declared this production, which runs through Jan. 10, to be one of the best things he’s ever seen. And he’s seen over 10,000 shows.

I agree that Judgment Day is a visual spectacle. But I also think Jones’ epic approach overwhelms his storytelling. Like O'Neill's Hairy Ape, Horváth’s tale is intentionally expressionistic and leans heavily on archetypes. But Jones and Bobby Cannavale, who played the proud ship worker in the Hairy Ape who is dismissed by a wealthy female passenger as a “filthy beast,” found a way to make you feel for the character and, by extension, for others ground down by the 1 percent.

Horvath’s more intimate story calls for even more empathetic treatment. But neither the director nor Bruno Kirby (click here toread more about him) who plays Hudetz made me feel anything for the station master’s plight. And having never seen the play before, I can’t tell if I should blame Horváth, Shinn or Jones for making the townspeople so vapid. And that’s despite the fact that they’re played in this production by such fine actors as Harriet Harris as the town busybody (automatic demerits for anyone who makes Harris seem colorless) and Henry Stram as the one resident who attempts to abide by his moral conscience.

I get that we’re supposed to draw parallels between the time of the play and these fitful times when polarized groupthink is threatening our own democracy. But the erosion of society’s norms doesn’t happen with epic gestures, it happens in the quotidian moments in which people begin to lie to themselves about what is happening around them, find it easier to follow the crowd than to stand on principle and look for outsiders to blame.

I suspect those are among the sins we'll all be called to answer for on the real Judgment Day and no amount of razzle-dazzle in this production or otherwise can make up for a sincere contemplation of how to confront them.  

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