Back in the late 1960s, when college students started using the word “cinema” instead of “movies,” the 1947 book “From Caligari to Hitler,” by Siegfried Kracauer, enjoyed a significant revival. Kracauer analyzed every German film from “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1919) to “The Blue Angel” (1930) through the lens of the Nazi regime that was to come.
Christopher Shinn’s new adaptation of Odon von Horvath’s 1937 drama “Judgment Day” opened Tuesday at the Park Avenue Armory, and its significance is enhanced mightily by director Richard Jones’ full-Kracauer take on the material. Von Horvath’s subsequent work, the novel “Youth without God,” directly attacked the Nazis for indoctrinating students with their propaganda, and was written in exile before the author’s death in 1938 at age 36, after a falling tree branch struck him on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
Banned by the Nazis, von Horvath’s “Judgment Day” doesn’t mention politics of any kind, but the citizens of its world are clearly Germans in the 1930s, as depicted in Antony McDonald’s period costumes. More important, these townspeople are paranoid, on edge, bickering and ready to take sides against any perceived foe and then, just as quickly, switch sides. “Gypsies,” at one point, are mentioned as the possible perpetrators of crime in the area.
The central crime of “Judgment Day,” however, is the failure of Thomas, a stationmaster (Luke Kirby), to set the signals for an approaching train — Anna, a local girl (Susannah Perkins), distracts him with an unexpected kiss — and the subsequent death of many. Lies about the fatal incident engulf the town and guilt spreads to infect not only Thomas and Anna but everyone around them.
Jones and Shinn are wise not to update the material. Seeing these characters as a bunch of Nazis (no swastikas in sight) adds considerably to the weight, and the production is nothing if not heavy, the dialogue blunt and to the point. We don’t see any of the many passing trains, but Mimi Jordan Sherin’s flashy lighting design and Daniel Kluger’s deafening sound design practically knock you out of your seat. During these episodes, Jones directs his actors to perform as though they’ve been hit with a windstorm.
Even more theatrical is Paul Steinberg’s mammoth set design. Two monolithic plywood structures slowly roam the gargantuan Armory stage between scene changes to take shape as a railway station, a viaduct, an inn and other locales. Eight stagehands maneuver these huge blocks of bleached wood as actors run, march, or scurry around them. (It’s reminiscent of Hal Prince’s staging of “City on Fire” from the original “Sweeney Todd,” only much bigger.) The scene changes are without question the most dramatic moments in “Judgment Day,” since you may fear that one of the humans on stage, like Martha Scott in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” might get knocked over or snagged under the rolling set pieces.
“Expressionistic” can be just another word for “overacting,” and there’s plenty of that in this production. Amid several big performances, Kirby and Perkins come off a little wan in their opening scene at the railway station. As they become victims of their own guilt, however, both performances take on a spectral quality. They’re already dead even while they’re still walking around.
Equally desiccated in appearance and manner is the wonderful Henry Stram, who plays Thomas’s brother-in-law, without a doubt the most ambivalently drawn character in the play. From his entrance, he appears to have stepped out of a painting by George Groz.