Monday, January 20, 2020

Big and Little Spaces: Judgment Day, Is This a Room, The Thin Place

Judgment Day, at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

The British director Richard Jones has directed all over London, the continent and New York, but he must take special pleasure in working at the Park Avenue Armory, where he brought his production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape (which premiered at the Old Vic), and where I recently saw his Judgment Day, a most rare revival of a 1937 play by the German expressionist Ödön von Horváth. Bobby Cannavale was splendid as Yank in the first, and Luke Kirby gives a potent, focused performance as the doomed small-town stationmaster, Thomas Hudetz, in the second, though in both cases the real star of the show is Jones’s masterful use of the massive Armory space. Jones’s staging of Judgment Day evokes comparisons to both choreography and painting: he manipulates his ensemble of seventeen like a corps de ballet while approaching the visual elements – including Paul Steinberg’s production design, Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting and Antony McDonald’s costumes – as if they were tools in the painting of an enormous canvas. The show, which comes in at a compact ninety minutes, is thrilling to look at.

Von Horváth’s plays, like those of his fellow expressionists, were excoriated and suppressed by the Nazis, and he died at thirty-seven, a year after he’d written Judgment Day; though there was a brief flurry of interest in his Tales from the Vienna Woods in the seventies, he soon faded back into obscurity. Perhaps because I appeared in a production of Tales from the Vienna Woods in graduate school, I’ve always been curious about him, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to see another one of his works. The play itself, which Christopher Shinn has adapted, is effective but – like most of the expressionist plays that came out of the twenties and thirties – a little spare. It revolves around a train accident. Hudetz, distracted by the embrace of Anna, the local innkeeper’s daughter, who has fallen in love with him, forgets to pull the signal on time that announces the departure of the daily train, causing a fatal collision with a freight. But he denies his responsibility for the disaster, and Anna (Susannah Perkins) backs up his story. When his wife (Alyssa Bresnahan) claims that she saw him in Anna’s arms from her bedroom window above the platform, the town refuses to believe her because she is generally disliked and blamed for making Thomas’s life a misery. A trial exonerates Hudetz and he’s even declared a hero, but in the aftermath of his release Anna feels guilty, and, threatened by her attack of conscience, he kills her. He becomes a fugitive, hunted by the neighbors who just hours earlier celebrated him. The play is about guilt, of course, but mostly it’s a fable about mob mentality; it’s like a ninety-minute version of the scene from Julius Caesar where the loyalties of the Roman populace sway back and forth after Caesar’s assassination.

Steinberg’s magnificent set consists of two large sculpted pieces, one of which has a tunnel-like curved section carved out of it; they are shifted around to form different configurations completed by Sherin’s moody, eerie lighting, which provides shadowy corners like the ones in De Chirico paintings. (I realize that I’m reaching for a comparison between an expressionist set design and a surrealist painter, yet it’s De Chirico’s shadows that kept coming to mind.) The pioneering proto-expressionist designers, Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig, thought in terms of rhythmic spaces, using the actors and the design components to build the stage picture the way the instrumentation of a piece of classical music develops its musical ideas. That’s the effect you get in Judgment Day when the actors rush through the stage space so they and the moving sets appear to be crosshatched, or when a silhouetted figure downstage right knocks on the door of a pharmacy owned by Frau Hudetz’s brother (Henry Stram), where he and his sister are eating dinner in the apartment above, and the composition of the stage picture seems mysteriously to undergo a dramatic transformation.

Playing a hysteric, Bresnahan is the only member of the cast whose performance lacks control. (But it’s a tricky part.) The company includes Harriet Harris, whom I almost always like, as a particularly venomous gossip. I was especially happy to see Kirby, the fine Canadian actor who has finally achieved recognition (and won an Emmy) for playing Lenny Bruce in the series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. This is the first time I’ve seen him on stage but it won’t be the last.

Peter Simpson, TL Thompson, Emily Davis, and Becca Blackwell in Is This a Room. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

If Judgment Day derives its sinister quality from imagery, Is This a Room relies on the aural. This play easily sold out the intimate Vineyard Theatre in Union Square last year but has returned for a second engagement. It’s even shorter than Judgment Day – a mere seventy minutes – and not quite like anything in my theatergoing memory. The play, conceived and directed by Tina Satter, dramatizes – without altering – the transcript of an interview conducted by Federal agents with a young woman named Reality Winner, an ex-member of the Air Force accused of leaking a classified document about the Russian influence on the last U.S. election. Meticulously performed by Frank Boyd, TL Thompson, Becca Blackwell and especially Emily Davis as Reality, Is This a Room is chiefly about language – its power and our ability to invoke that power by distorting it. The seductive fake friendliness of the chief FBI interrogator (Boyd) and the steely insistence it masks, Reality’s earnestness and growing fear reflected in the fragmentation and repetition and shifting shadings of her answers, are deeply unsettling. Satter uses the transcript, which somehow found its way into the public domain, as an absurdist text; we’re reminded that the early absurdist playwrights often concentrated on both the inadequacy of language to convey true depth of meaning and the way in which, in the modern world, language can be used deceptively and paradoxically.

Randy Danson and Emily Cass McDonnell in Lucas Hnath's The Thin Place, at Playwrights Horizons.(Photo: Joan Marcus)

I’m not so wild about the Lucas Hnath plays that have made it to Broadway, A Doll’s House, Part II and Hillary and Clinton. But I tend to be intrigued by the ones that haven’t made it into the mainstream, like The Christians (which is really a beautiful piece of work) and A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney and his latest, The Thin Place, which I saw at another little space, Playwrights Horizons. It’s a four-hander about the relationship between a medium named Linda (Randy Danson) who admits that she’s selling bogus magic tricks and a young woman named Hilda (Emily Cass McDonnell) – the narrator – who has had a real encounter with the supernatural. (Triney Sandoval and Kelly McAndrew play the supporting parts.) The title alludes to a place in the universe where the wall between our world and the other world is fascinatingly and terrifyingly thin – you know, the kind of place Stephen King likes to write about. Honestly, I would have liked the production (which Les Waters directed) better if another actress had played Hilda; McDonnell’s vocal eccentricities are intriguing for a while but grow wearying. But it’s a creepy little piece.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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