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Emmy winner Luke Kirby returns to the New York stage in an epic production of a rarely seen play
To fans of Slings and Arrows—a cult TV comedy about the behind-the-scenes drama at a Canadian theatre festival—it may sound like a lost plotline to hear that Luke Kirby is performing in an avant-garde production of a play by a dramatist little known in the U.S., who died in a freak accident in 1938. After all, on Slings and Arrows Kirby played Jack Crew, an action movie star with no stage experience trying to tackle Hamlet. "I adored that story," Kirby says. "I loved playing him."
In the 16 years since that role, Kirby, 41, has become a familiar face on the small screen, winning an Emmy for his portrayal of real-life comic Lenny Bruce on Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and playing closeted civil servant Gene Goldman on HBO's The Deuce. But now he's returning to his first love, the theatre, as unwitting murderer Thomas Hudetz in Ödön von Horváth's Judgment Day at the Park Avenue Armory.
Kirby is no Jack Crew. He attended the National Theatre School of Canada and, soon after graduating, moved in with his grandmother in Brooklyn so he could perform in Troilus and Cressida at Theatre for a New Audience in 2001. He was, in other words, a Shakespearean stage actor before he got his Slings and Arrows gig.
Yet he's only performed in a handful of plays during the two decades he's lived in NYC. Why so few, and why suddenly Judgment Day after a six-year absence? (His last New York stage credit was Too Much, Too Much, Too Many Off-Broadway at Roundabout Theatre.)
"The dry answer is, it just worked out that way, and I have to make a living," Kirby replies, noting some of his screen jobs take him out of town for months at a time. But it's clear he'd rather stay in New York. After he won his Emmy in September, he was asked backstage what he enjoyed most about doing The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. His answer: "I can ride my bicycle to work." That same month he signed on as the lead in Judgment Day.
"I was intrigued and a little bit mystified [by the script]" Kirby says, adding that director Richard Jones also seemed a bit baffled by the play. "But we both felt the magnet pulling us in. It clearly had a muscle and a dynamic. It kind of felt right."
Originally written in German in 1937 and newly adapted by Obie-winning playwright Christopher Shinn, Judgment Day explores the aftermath of a catastrophic accident in a small European town in the '30s. When Thomas Hudetz (Kirby), the unhappily married stationmaster of the local train depot, is momentarily distracted by an unexpected kiss from the innkeeper's daughter Anna (Susannah Perkins), he forgets to turn on a crucial signal. A train crashes, killing 18 people. Hudetz lies to the authorities, insisting he did nothing wrong. Initially, the townsfolk defend him, but eventually turn and the play descends into darkness.
Kirby often has a jazzy kind of slouch in his screen roles. But when his Hudetz first appears, he's dressed impeccably in his uniform, and looks as stiff and mechanical as a toy soldier, right down to his blank stare. Over the course of the drama, his posture collapses dramatically and his face takes on a look of desperation.
The actor says he leans in to Hudetz's physicality in part because of the mammoth space in which the show is performed: the Armory's 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall, fitted with Paul Steinberg's massive expressionist set featuring towering trees and colossal blocks of wood made even more dramatic under Mimi Jordan Sherin's chiaroscuro lighting.
"I love silent film and watching how much can be gleaned from a gesture," says Kirby. "I always try to discover a person from head to toe." Hudetz, the actor determined, "is sort of the perfect cog in the wheel of the Austrian Empire. He has a very tender, almost childlike heart. He is somebody who spends a lot of time really listening intently to what a priest has to say and tries to follow those orders. He feels this responsibility to God and country."
If he is so dutiful, why doesn't he admit his mistake?
"He lives inside a culture of shame," Kirby muses. "I don't think that he is solely trying to get out of trouble. I think he is doing what we all do very well. It's not entirely unfamiliar to us to hear people denying accountability."
Kirky suspects that Horváth was exploring his own feelings of guilt "at a time when the train of horror was fast approaching." Born in Hungary, the playwright lived in Germany for a while before settling in Austria, but "he did not leave as soon as other people did."
He finally moved to Paris in 1938, the year of his death at the age of 36.
Kirby recounts the playwright's odd end: "He went to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at a movie theatre, then got caught in a rainstorm and took shelter under a tree. A branch broke off and hit him in the head. A few days earlier, he had gone to see a fortune teller who told him the adventure of his lifetime awaited him in Paris. He had just had a meeting with someone inviting him to come to Los Angeles to work as a screenwriter."
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was recently renewed for a fourth season, and Kirby has other projects in the works. But whether his next part is on stage or screen, he says he approaches all roles the same way: "You sling mud at a wall and hope for something to stick. You hope to get to the point where you can convince yourself, or delude yourself, into thinking that what you are doing is actually real for just a brief moment. And then you hope that it also comes through in whatever medium you are working in."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Judgment Day. Go here to browse our current offers.
Jonathan Mandell is a drama critic and journalist based in New York. Visit his blog at NewYorkTheater.me or follow him on Twitter at @NewYorkTheater. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Luke Kirby, Cricket Brown and the cast in Judgment Day. Photos by Stephanie Berger.