Just when I was about to give up hope for serious theater in New York, after sitting through overpraised trifles (The Sound Inside), overwritten behemoths (The Inheritance), and boringly au-courant political plays (Heroes of the Fourth Turning), my faith was restored by the most exciting theater event of the year. It’s Richard Jones’s new production of Judgment Day, Odon Von Horvath’s 1937 play, which has opened for a monthlong run at the Park Avenue Armory.
From the outset, the play (newly adapted by Christopher Shinn) looks and feels like nothing else you’re likely to see on a New York stage. In contrast to the naturalistic style and “relevant” subject matter of most current American plays, Judgment Day is boldly stylized and plainly allegorical. The sets are mammoth (a couple of giant concrete structures constantly move around on the cavernous Armory stage), the acting big and declamatory, the tone dark, fatalistic, almost otherworldly. The play opens at the railway station of a small middle-European town, where a few passengers are waiting for a train, which is late as usual. Two express trains pass by (with a thunderous whoosh, vividly rendered by the lighting and sound effects), and for each one the stationmaster emerges to set the signals, with the clockwork efficiency of a mechanical toy soldier. Finally a train stops; the passengers board; and a few minutes later, distracted by the flirtatious daughter of the town’s innkeeper, the stationmaster misses a signal. The result is a horrific crash.
The rest of the play follows the aftermath: the stationmaster’s struggle with his guilt, an investigation, the shifting loyalties of the townspeople. Yet this is no mere police procedural or simple morality tale. For one thing, virtually all the key events — the accident, the ensuing trial, a murder — are skipped. The play’s focus, instead, is on the nature of guilt and the ambiguous morality of the townspeople who variously accuse or lie to protect him. Good people do bad things, and bad people do good things. The stationmaster, widely admired in the town, defends himself by appealing to his good character — he’s always been a “diligent official.” But is one’s character, the play asks, something that can be separated from the sum of one’s actions?
Horvath was born in the Austro-Hungarian empire, lived for several years in Germany, and his work was suffused by the shadow of fascism. (He died tragically, in a freak Paris thunderstorm, at age 36, just a year after writing this play, ) Like Durrenmatt’s The Visit, written two decades later, Judgment Day is a parable of the malleability of the crowd; the townspeople collectively scurry about and around the giant moving sets, like a flock of sparrows chasing after bread crumbs. Yet each character (Luke Kirby, as the stationmaster, heads the exceptional cast) is sharply delineated, both individual and symbolic at the same time.
Some critics have complained that Jones’s mammoth production overwhelms the play — and have compared it unfavorably with his acclaimed 2017 Armory production of O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape. I missed that, but what I see here seems absolutely right: the huge scale lifts the play out of a particular time and place and gives it the social and moral weight it deserves. And one final surprise, for jaded Broadway theatergoers: when the 90-minute evening is over, there is no standing ovation. Just stunned applause, for a gripping, sober and unforgettable piece of theater.