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The minimal set is properly dungeon-esque, and the costuming — dominated by double-breasted suits with wide pants and lapels — makes the characters look like they stepped out of a period photograph. While the dialogue is often stilted (“We are 27 all together. That was the order from Stalin himself, signed by his hand,” Zunser intones), Chip Zien’s performance as the arrogant, humiliated Korinsky is astoundingly good, and the young Noah Robbins does an impressive job as the precious but endearing Pinchas.
If the symbolism of the four characters wasn’t apparent, Englander makes it explicit. These men could be the Four Sons of the Passover Seder, Pinchas suggests — wise, wicked, simple and the one who does not know how to ask. The inversion of this schema is also apparent, even without any mention. Whereas the Four Sons of the Seder respond to a narrative of redemption, these writers respond to their own tragedy. Zunser has seen not only the loss of his wife and sons, but also his readership “sent up the chimneys.” Korinsky has been betrayed by the ideals to which he has dedicated his life — the glory of communism and the Soviet Union. Pinchas has not only lost his future, but also the opportunity to die for a cause. Only Bretzky seems halfway content, for having had the privilege of living and working during the “Golden Age of Yiddish.”
While it is difficult to represent the horrors of interrogation and torture onstage, the concern of this play is not the brute facts of these characters’ deaths, but the meaning of their lives as Yiddish writers. Zunser, defending the centrality of Yiddish to their identities, exclaims, “Who are we without Yiddish?” It is a cruel irony that here they are, in Englander’s play, without Yiddish. And indeed, much is lost. Yet thanks to “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” the fate of the Soviet Yiddish writers murdered by Stalin will now be known to a much larger group of people than the small crowd of Yiddishists that shows up each year at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research to commemorate their deaths. That is no small thing.
Throughout the play, Pinchas, unable to face a day without writing, composes a story in his head and recites it to his fellow prisoners just before their execution. In it, a man wakes up to realize that he is dead; he begins to recite the Kaddish. But can he say Kaddish for himself? Unsure, he goes to the rabbi to ask, “Which one of us is to say the prayer?”
The tragedy of Englander’s characters, and of the real people on whom they are based, is that they seemed the sole witnesses to their deaths and the only ones to mourn the work to which they had dedicated their lives. Fortunately, that has proved untrue. While most Soviet Yiddish writers remain unjustifiably obscure, audiences, hopefully, will be moved, to investigate what and whom we really lost. As “The Twenty-Seventh Man” makes plain, they cannot be considered merely victims. As writers, they must be read.
“The Twenty-Seventh Man” runs through December 16 at the Public Theater.
Ezra Glinter is the deputy arts editor of the Forward.