Nathan Englander packs big themes into small places. The Twenty-Seventh Man, a 90-minute play that runs through Dec. 9 at the Public Theater, is a fictionalized account of Stalin's murder of 26 of the Soviet Union's most gifted Yiddish writers. Based on Englander's short story of the same title, the play is performed on a compact stage that feels almost claustrophobic, which is clearly director Barry Edelstein's intent. Almost all of the "action"—lots of talk about writing and writers, politics and destiny—takes place in a windowless cell in a Soviet prison in 1952 as the writers await their fate. Compression, in time and place, is one of those aesthetic tools that Englander uses to evoke his play's quintessentially Jewish notes of tragic irony.
The Twenty-Seventh Man is based on a real incident—"The Night of the Murdered Poets," about which too little is known. The name refers to the evening on which Stalin executed 26 Yiddish writers in the summer of 1952, only months before his own death. Among them were several of the Yiddish language's greatest poets, playwrights, novelists and journalists—Peretz Markish, Leib Kvitko, Dovid Bergelson, Itzik Fefer, David Hofshteyn, Benjamin Zuskin, Leon Talmy, and Ilya Vatenberg. Where and how they died remained unknown until the collapse of the Soviet Union. But their murders were said to have ended a Yiddish literary and artistic culture without equal anywhere in the world. Englander told one interviewer that since the writers were killed "without their last story being told," he felt that "somebody should write them a story.' "
And what a poignant story he has told. At first, the three prison mates whom Stalin's secret police have arrested—all giants of Yiddish literature in Russia—react to their plight with literary banter born of disbelief and denial. They try to shrug off their ominous incarceration with literary insults and Jewish jokes. Vasily Korinsky (Chip Zien), a true believer in Communist claptrap, a proud Party man who writes paeans to Stalin in verse, only half jokingly describes himself as "the most recognizable writer in this nation." Clearly his arrest has been an "error," an "oversight" that will be rectified if and when he can speak to The Agent in Charge. Though he writes in Yiddish, he is the prototypical new man—beyond race, region, ethnicity, and surely religion. Judaism is his culture and religion, not his life, he tells his cellmates.
The face of Yevgeny Zunser (Ron Rifkin), by contrast, is quintessentially Jewish, Korinsky says—a face that "couldn't be any more kosher if it was made of gefilte fish and had a herring poking out of each eye." Moishe Bretzky (Daniel Oreskes), the third cellmate, is a poet who has responded to Stalin's terrors by eating and drinking to excess, philandering, and writing apolitical Yiddish verse. "Fields of wheat, and well-groomed horses, fattened geese, and the cream on milk," Korinsky mocks Bretzky's lusty poetry: "At its best it reads like a breakfast menu at a mountain resort." Bombastic and drunken Bretzky may be. But he is also honest. As a result, he despises Korinsky, whom he derides as the Soviet system's preening "lap dog," an artist whose writing has served to justify and rationalize Stalin's ever-growing brutality.
Korinsky's sole consolation is that he has been included for detention among the "lions of Yiddish literature." Which is why the arrival of the 27th man—Pinchas Pelovits (Noah Robbins)—whom no one seems to know, so riles him. Pinchas, a fervent young reader who loves Yiddish literature, turns out to be an unknown, unpublished writer. Why should he have been included among the immortals? the other three wonder. To Korinsky, who wears his Lenin Prize pin on his lapel even in jail, the arrest of such a nebbish, a nobody, is a travesty second only to that of his own incarceration.
The drama builds toward a confrontation between Korinsky and The Agent in Charge, an over-the-top anti-Semite faithfully portrayed as written by Byron Jennings. The Agent has not summoned him to release him or offer him tea, as Korinsky has deluded himself into hoping. He will not be freed; no apology for the indignity of his arrest will be forthcoming. The agent seeks only evidence from him against the others—especially the young unknown Pinchas, who was indeed arrested, as all three of the great writers suspect, because of a clerical error, a whisper in the ear of the "Great One."
The agent's brief anti-Semitic tirade—coupled with news that his beloved wife, Paulina, has also been arrested—devastate Korinsky, who seems to crumble before us on stage as his fate becomes clear. The agent offers him a chance of semi-redemption worthy of Arthur Miller's Crucible (spoiler alert), but Korinsky manages to find a long-buried decency and courage. Returning to the cell, he no longer asserts that he is "innocent in the complete." In Stalin's Russia, as Yevgeny Zunser warns him early in the play, "an enemy is not always guilty." And the guilt of the 27 resides not in what they have written and only partly in the "Jew" that is stamped on the "fifth line" of their passports.
As the writers confront their inevitable fate, they contemplate their legacy as writers. They wonder, too, about whether even their work will even survive since those who read them have disappeared in gas chambers. "My readers are smoke," Zunser laments. Can a literature survive without readers or writers or storytellers, or its own legends? Englander wonders. The question answers itself, which accounts for the small play's poignancy. More tentatively, Englander has his 27th Man, Pinchas the unknown, pose another question that he does not attempt to answer: Can a religion itself survive without the prayers of the living, if not for the dead?
Englander's play is set in the past because it had to be. Well-connected New York Jews may shmooze at the Regency, nosh on bagels and cream cheese at Katz's, and kvell about the Knicks or their daughter's acceptance at Juilliard, but Yiddish is essentially a dead language to most modern Jews, a language spoken only by grandparents who don't want their children or the goyim to eavesdrop. The political danger that haunted Soviet Jews, particularly at the end of Stalin's life, is as remote to most Americans—Jews and non-Jews alike—as the virulent anti-Semitism of the pre-civil rights era in this country. If Englander had tried to write a contemporary play about modern American Jewish angst, it would read like Woody Allen.
But if Englander's short story may be better literature than this stage adaptation is drama, it does pay long overdue tribute to the Jewish writers whose lives were cut short by a madman's whim. It is also a poignant statement about the Jewish ability to appreciate and even celebrate the fragility of life in times of murderous hatred. If the ironic bite of Yiddish sounds different in English, we can be grateful that the strangled hopes and dreams of a vibrant, independent Jewish culture in the Soviet Union—and the madman who murdered them, as well as the bodies and souls of millions of innocent people—have no equivalent in modern American life.