The director Richard Jones was last in Park Avenue Armory’s expansive Drill Hall with Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, a production of such vast scope that Bobby Cannavale’s Yank felt minuscule in a world that was out to break him. Stewart Laing’s rotating set brought enormous set pieces from behind the audience at a glacial crawl that built suspense both dramatically (within the plot) and theatrically (within the audience). It was a devastating piece of theatre about the ways in which the societal machine – politics, an ingrained class system, capitalism – can crush the individual. It’s no wonder that, given The Hairy Ape’s success, Park Avenue Armory commissioned a new work from Richard Jones. It’s also no wonder that the resulting production, Judgment Day, tries and fails to replicate what worked so well last time.
Judgment Day is a 1937 German-language play by Ödön von Horváth about a train station master who makes a grave lapse in judgment and sends eighteen people to their death. At first well-liked, the town supports him and shuns his wife who speaks the truth right away. But the tide soon turns and the station master’s cover story begins to strain their credulity.
The new adaptation by Christopher Shinn feels cinematic in its short, straight-to-the point scenes, and the dialogue clicks, building character through person-to-person interaction and an ensemble of gossiping townspeople. In a smaller production, we’d hear Shinn’s writing and connect to the characters better. In this one, the successful scenes happen only in confined spaces. The opening scene at the train station works well because the actors are pressed between a huge blank wall and a slim strip of platform. There’s nowhere for them to go, we just listen to them and look right in their faces. The scenes in the pharmacy and the pharmacist’s apartment are also captivating because the spaces are tight and the narrowed visual aperture contains the tension.
But the goal here is bigness. So much of the play occurs under or next to a slanted arch and a corresponding sloped wall by set designer Paul Steinberg. There is a forest of trees along the outer edges and an ominous clock ticking above it all, lit like the moon (by Mimi Jordan Sherin). The walls move around the space via detachable motors that have to be steered with what looks like great effort by a team of hard-working stagehands. Like in The Hairy Ape, these scene transitions (more than six of them in ninety minutes), take their time to rearrange the space, but here the tension isn’t retained. Daniel Kluger’s incidental music does its best to carry us through the gaps, but with each second the momentum slips out. When the walls have been rearranged, the new positioning is rarely worth the wait. Steinberg’s set is big for big’s sake and after the first couple adjustments, there’s not much left to keep the compositions from growing stale. There’s too much air around the scenes; there are too many places for the tension to go.
The cast is filled with great New York theatre actors, though, and each of them does impeccable work. Alyssa Bresnahan is particularly spectacular as the station master’s maligned wife. The townspeople talk shit about her for being significantly older than her husband (not her fault), frustrated by her ostracization from the community (not her fault), and lonely in her marriage (not her fault). She witnesses her husband’s deadly mistake and goes to the police to tell them the truth. Bedecked in a wide-brimmed hat and tied blouse that bring to mind Faye Dunaway in Chinatown (the costumes are by Antony McDonald), she is attacked and shamed for telling the truth and nobody will believe her. In a performance of incredibly intensity that also recalls peak Dunaway, Bresnahan weathers their abuse and gives it back to them. She is done taking their abuse. “[S]he doesn’t exist anymore,” the Innkeeper (Tom McGowan) says when they’ve forced her out of town. But she hasn’t existed to them for a long time. Such is the plight of an aging woman.
Jones is adept at creating mood, that’s undeniable. Judgment Day is suffused with crepuscular shadow and shards of light, with period details that believably transform the space to an unnamed Austro-Hungarian town. Even as the events of the plot don’t coalesce into any kind of cathartic climax, it’s still thrilling to be in the room. This production, like The Hairy Ape, is something only the Armory can do and that’s the kind of work it should continue to produce. But a past theatrical success is not repeatable. It is lightning in a bottle and then it’s gone. The trick is to capture lightning again, not shine a flashlight in an empty vessel.