Every writer confronts the possibility of failure. There is no guarantee of being read or if read, of hitting the mark. But no writer expects to succeed and still fail, not through any fault of his own, but because his culture has been destroyed, his language suppressed and his readers murdered. Yet that is the fate of the characters in Nathan Englander’s play “The Twenty-Seventh Man.” In it, a group of Soviet Yiddish writers, rounded up on orders from Stalin, spend their last hours in a prison cell, grappling with the meaning of their work, their lives, and of Yiddish literature in its darkest hour.
Though fictional, the play takes its cue from history. The Soviet Union had once been supportive of Yiddish culture, but following World War II, Stalin turned viciously against it. Institutions were shuttered, publications closed, and Yiddish artists and writers arrested and imprisoned. On August 12, 1952, less than a year before Stalin’s death, five Yiddish writers — Peretz Markish, David Hofstein, Itzik Feffer, Leib Kvitko and David Bergelson — were executed, along with eight other Jewish leaders, following years of imprisonment, interrogation and torture.
Read Q&A with Nathan Englander on the Arty Semite blog.
In Englander’s version, the group expands to 26, plus one unknown scribbler. Perhaps because 27 is an unwieldy number of characters, the group is confined to four, along with a prison guard (Happy Anderson) and the agent in charge (Byron Jennings). They are Yevgeny Zunser (Ron Rifkin), the oldest of the group and a legend of Yiddish letters; Vasily Korinsky (Chip Zien), an ardent propagandist for the Communist Party; Moishe Bretzky, or “Der Glutton”(Daniel Oreskes), a hedonistic nature poet who was dragged to prison from the arms of two prostitutes, and Pinchas Pelovitz (Noah Robbins), an unpublished youth who is equal parts precociousness and potential.
The play is based on Englander’s story of the same name, the first piece in his 2000 collection, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.” Englander is a better prose writer than he is a playwright, and his meticulous style isn’t quite suited to the stage. But this story, which consists mostly of dialogue, does lend itself to drama, and the production by the Public Theater, under the direction of Barry Edelstein, is expertly arranged.