Monday, January 6, 2020

Judgment Day - The Degrees of Responsibility

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The idea that every person is responsible for their own actions is a basic tenet in most societies. However, when those actions are called into question, uncovering the truth behind them is another matter. Especially when gossip, innuendo and the complete refusal to believe anything but one's own certainty is involved. Such is the case in Ödön von Horváth’s 1937 drama, Judgment Day. The work being given an absolutely wonderful revival, with a stellar new adaptation by Christopher Shinn, at Park Avenue Armory.

Thomas Hudetz (Luke Kirby) is the Stationmaster and sole employee at the railway station of a small town in 1930s Germany. An officious sort, he is extremely devoted to his job. Well-liked by the locals, the fact he keeps mostly to himself, and has a wife (Alyssa Bresnahan) 13 years his senior, has been a frequent source of gossip. Frau Hudetz's intense jealousy when it comes to her husband also providing endless grist for the rumor mill.

On this particular day, Thomas is at his post when he is distracted by the flirtatious behavior of Anna (Susannah Perkins), the daughter of the local innkeeper (Tom McGowan). Her actions causing Thomas to delay setting a signal lever, which results in two trains colliding, leaving 18 people dead. In the aftermath of the accident, Thomas' account of his becomes suspect. Further complicating matters are conflicting accounts from two witnesses, each of whom claim to have seen exactly what Thomas did just before the crash. As Thomas struggles with what happened, Anna finds herself consumed by guilt over her own involvement in the matter. In addition, Anna's growing feelings for the married Thomas, even though she is engaged to someone else, sets in motion a further series of events which will have their own lasting ramifications.

                    Luke Kirby in Judgment Day at Park Avenue Armory. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

While these events are unfolding, the feelings of the townsfolk continue to shift. They at first standing by those they are certain are innocent, before ultimately turning against them. Not because of any new evidence, but because those in question do not act in a manner the townspeople consider acceptable. Thomas, his wife, and pharmacist brother-in-law Alfons (Henry Stram), among those who find themselves, albeit at different times, on the receiving end of the townspeople's scorn.

Judgment Day takes an unflinching look at two types of incidents. Ones which people are directly responsible for, and thus can be prosecuted; and those where people may be morally guilty - through the spreading of gossip and moral condemnation of others - but which are almost impossible to legally punish. This is also a play filled with ironies. Such as how those with a conscience may pay the ultimate price, as shown in a particularly riveting encounter in one of the final scenes; while others, who honestly feel they have done nothing wrong, are free to continue just as they please.

At the same time, the play makes quite clear how important it is for some people to be on the right side of public opinion. Alfons going so far as to publicly denounce his sister in order to get back in the community's good graces. Only to later receive a warning about the dangers of going against the town when he once more stands by her.

Luke Kirby (right) and the cast of Judgment Day at Park Avenue Armory. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

It also becomes obvious how Judgment Day, with only some minor changes to the text, could easily take place almost anywhere in the world. This being a rather sad indictment on the state of society in general. Especially one continually poised to accuse first and examine the evidence later.

An added bonus to this already powerful story are the truly massive sets by Paul Steinberg. Ones which include the train station where Thomas is employed, a series of railroad tunnels, and a rather imposing entrance to a viaduct. The structures often used to deliberately dwarf the human characters in the play, making them appear tiny and insignificant.

Mimi Jordan Sherin's lighting effects, and the work by sound designers Drew Levy and Daniel Kluger all help to create a perfect foreboding atmosphere for the piece. Also quite good are the costumes by Antony McDonald, particularly the immaculate uniform Thomas wears. The direction by Richard Jones also works perfectly here. His efforts keeping the story moving forward while continually building up the tension, and never giving the audience a chance to catch their breath until the end.

                   The cast of Judgment Day at Park Avenue Armory. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

Kirby is excellent as Thomas. A man outwardly quiet and calm, until circumstances sets him on a path he cannot change. One can see his growing despair and desperation the more he tries to deny what he has done. Bresnahan does a good job as his wife. Someone who has long since lost herself to the demons of jealousy and insecurity. She also being so afraid of losing her husband to someone younger, she has long since pushed him away - yet another irony in the story.

Stram is very compelling as Alfons, the closest thing one has to a sympathetic character in the piece, though even he doesn't have completely clean hands when it comes to his actions. Perkins projects just the right amount of innocence and sexuality as Anna. Harriet Harris does a nice turn as Frau Liemgruber, one of the townspeople clearly aware of the social power she can wield. McGowan works well as the innkeeper. As does Alex Breaux as Anna's fiancée.

Judgment Day pulls no punches while delivering a searing indictment against those who refuse to accept responsibility for what they have done, no matter the circumstances involved.

Featuring: Andy Murray (Lumberjack), Harriet Harris (Frau Liemgruber), Alyssa Bresnahan (Frau Hudetz), Henry Stram (Alfons), Jason O'Connell (Salesman/Trackworker), Luke Kirby (Thomas Hudetz), Alex Breaux (Ferdinand), Susannah Perkins (Anna), Charles Brice (Policeman), Tom McGowan (Innkeeper of the Wild Man), Glen Daniels (Frau Krenn), Jeena Yi (Lena), John Glowacki (Herr Koller), George Merrick (Stoker/Truck Driver), Maurice Jones (Prosecutor/Pokorny), Cricket Brown (Inspector), Joe Wegner (Detective).

Judgment Day
by Ödön von Horváth
Adapted by Christopher Shinn

Set Designer: Paul Steinberg
Lighting Designer: Mimi Jordan Sherin
Costume Designer: Antony McDonald
Music and Sound Design: Daniel Kluger
Sound Designer: Drew Levy
Anjali Mehra: Movement Director
Kate Wilson: Vocal Coach
Thomas Schall: Fight Director
Lisa Iacucci: Production Stage Manager
Janet Takami: Stage Manager
Michael Medina: Assistant Stage Manager
Casting: Telsey + Company/Tiffany Little Canfield, CSA/Karyn Casl, CSA

Directed by Richard Jones

A Park Avenue Armory Production
643 Park Avenue
Running Time: 90 Minutes, with no intermission
Closes: January 10, 2020

Friday, January 3, 2020

Greater Clements - Starting Over Is Not For Everyone

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Just about everybody has wished for a second chance at least once in their lives. The opportunity to undo a certain decision, change the direction of one's life or simply move on from the past. So it is in Samuel D. Hunter's fascinating and often bleak new play, Greater Clements. A place where possibilities and emptiness walk hand in hand. The show now at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center.

In 2017, Maggie (Judith Ivey), a 65 year-old widow, runs the local historical museum in the former mining town of Clements, Idaho. A place which, for all intents and purposes, has ceased to exist. Having lost its major industry with the closing of the mine 12 years earlier, Clements has seen a major influx of new arrivals - mostly from California - in recent times. These newcomers are on the verge of becoming plentiful enough to determine the town's legislative agenda going forward. As a result, the remaining Clements old-timers, in the ultimate form of rebellion against change, chose to unincorporate the town in a recently completed, highly charged vote.

As Maggie prepares for the closing of the museum, in the wake of the aforementioned decision, she learns that her old high school sweetheart Billy (Ken Narasaki), with whom she has remained in touch over the years, will be passing through town with his 14-year old granddaughter Kel (Haley Sakamoto). That Maggie and Billy still have feelings for each other is immediately obvious, raising the possibility the two might start a new life together.

             Judith Ivey as "Maggie" in Greater Clements. Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

For Maggie however, things are not as simple as just packing up and leaving. She also has her son Joe (Edmund Donovan), to consider. Joe has struggled with mental illness for many years, and has recently moved back in with his mom. A somewhat jumpy sort, Joe used to take great pride in giving tours of the now-disused mine. Including describing a fire there in 1972 which claimed the lives of 81 miners, including his own grandfather; Maggie's dad.

Running through this story is the idea of rebirth and beginning again. Be it with Maggie and Billy and a new chance at romance, or the dogged efforts of Maggie's friend and town busybody Olivia (Nina Hellman) to overturn the unincorporation, and thus start to put the community back together. Though as it becomes quite clear, sometimes one is simply carrying too much emotional baggage to be able to move on. Which also makes it rather ironic that the one character who has the most possibilities in their future doesn't want any of them. At least not until a dose of reality is delivered from a most unexpected source.

Another very strong element in the story is the way many of the characters come off as both sincere and pragmatic. Its as if their very words are weighed down with the experiences of the past. This clearly visible in Maggie's various conversations with both Billy and Olivia.

        (L-R) Judith Ivey and Ken Narasaki in Greater Clements.  Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Ivey gives a very powerful performance as Maggie. She being one of those dependable people always ready to lend a hand to those in need. At the same time, Maggie carries a deep seated guilt stemming from those times she did put herself first. As well as an undercurrent of anger when forced to deal with matters she's since come to terms with. Her scenes with Billy are especially sweet and touching as this normally guarded soul tries to balance her needs and responsibilities both as a woman and a mother.

Donovan is thoroughly dynamic as the thirty-something Joe. He showing the character to be both a manic and officious sort, while continually trying to hold himself together; both for his sake and his mom. Yet despite all the progress he has made, via medication and psychiatric visits, there are those who, for various reasons, will always judge him for what he has done before. A conversation between Joe and Wayne (Andrew Garman), the county sheriff, being particularly telling in this regard.

Narasaki is fine as Billy, a gentle sort and a realist who just wants to enjoy whatever time he has left with someone he cares about. Hellman is both passionate and annoying as Olivia, a woman who wants things to go back to the way they were. The vote to unincorporate the town and the apparent heated debate over the question can almost be a stand-in for the feelings Americans had over the 2016 election, and the upcoming one in 2020 in regards to who they support and why.

(background L to R) Nina Hellman, Ken Narasaki, Andrew Garman; (center) Judith Ivey and Edmund Donovan in Greater Clements. Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Direction by David McCallum is strong for the most part, though things could have been a bit more focused at points, with certain sections of the play tending to meander. It would also have been nice to see a bit more backstory for the characters of Wayne and Olivia. Plus the way the final scene is set up - while also introducing a completely new character - has the effect of taking away some of the play's overall impact.

Dane Laffrey's sets, which include the museum, Maggie's living quarters, and the mine itself, are excellent. As are Yi Zaho's lighting effects and the sound design work by Fitz Patton.

A deeply absorbing tale about people and places bypassed by time and circumstances, Greater Clements is quite the powerful work indeed.

Featuring: Edmund Donovan (Joe), Judith Ivey (Maggie), Nina Hellman (Olivia), Ken Narasaki (Billy), Haley Sakamoto (Kel), Andrew Garman (Wayne), Kate MacCluggage (Mona).

Greater Clements

by Samuel D. Hunter

Sets: Dane Laffrey
Costumes: Kate Voyce
Lighting: Yi Zhao
Original Music and Sound: Fitz Patton
Stage Manager: Roxana Khan
Assistant Stage Manager: Karen Evanouskas
Dramaturgs: Anne Cattaneo, John Baker
Casting: Daniel Swee
Director of Marketing: Linda Mason Ross
General Press Agent: Philip Rinaldi
General Manager: Jessica Niebanck
Production Manager: Paul Smithyman

Directed by Davis McCallum

Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse
150 West 65th Street
Running Time: 2 hours, 50 minutes, including two intermissions
Closes: January 19, 2020