Nathan Englander Play Explores Stalin-Era Tragedy

'The Twenty-Seventh Man' Recalls Forgotten Killing Spree

Ron Rifkin and Noah Robbins play two doomed writers in Nathan Englander’s play ‘The Twenty-Seventh Man.’
The Public Theater
Ron Rifkin and Noah Robbins play two doomed writers in Nathan Englander’s play ‘The Twenty-Seventh Man.’

By Ezra Glinter

Published November 30, 2012, issue of December 07, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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nature poet who was dragged to prison from the arms of two prostitutes, and Pinchas Pelovitz (Noah Robbins), an unpublished youth who is equal parts precociousness and potential.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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.