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The Twenty-Seventh Man
By Elyse Sommer
Those three literary notables — Moishe Bretzky (Daniel Oreskes), Yvgeny Zunser (Ron Rifkin), and Vasily Korinsky (Chip Zien)— are fictional characters in Englander's 1999 story. Except for the accidentally imprisoned twenty-seventh man, the characters we see, as well as their unseen literary colleagues, are based on actual events that have been archived as "The Night of the Murdered Poets" (details and background are included in the Playbill).
The collection entitled For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, of which " The Twenty-Seenth Man" was a part, launched Englander as one of contemporary literature's best short story writers, and his adaptation now marks a promising debut as a playwright. As with so many page to stage translations, some things get lost in the process. But no matter. As dynamically staged by Barry Edelstein, and thanks to a fantastic cast, Englander's mix of fable and fictionalized historic eenst keep us on the edge of our seats even though this is hardly a thriller with a surprise ending. While the men all poets and the connecting thread of their imprisonment is, as Rifkin's Zunser puts it "The fifth line. The one in our passports stamped Jew." The actors beautifully individualize each man's personality and particular place in a country that instead of trying to destroy every Jew physically, instead opted to make them trade their Jewish affiliation for Mother Russia's all consuming Communism.
Englander has used the puzzling last man to arrive in the prison as a means for his cell mates to spend tthe tense time awaiting judgment tackling issues of communist party loyalty, culture, identity, and what it means to be a writer, especially a Yiddish writer in Stalinist Russia. The older men have all been widely read, most intensely so by young Pinchas for whom meeting men he's only known through the printed page is a bright spot in finding himself in "a dark hole."
All these issues make for a gathering shades of a literary salon but in the ominous "dark hole" setting , and overhung by the grim shadow of a dark judgment to come. It also makes for the danger of talk at the expense of dramatic impact. Indeed, the play is talky, but then so was Lee Blessing's A Walk in the Woods and so is the more recent hit Freud's Last Session.. And as in those plays the talk is pungent. Fortunately too, the terrifying reality of the situation and the seriousness and breadth of subjects discussed is leavened by humor. For example, as the play begins the incarcerated poets who have apparently had little contact must establish who they are. When Zunser asks Korinsky how he knew to address him in Jewish, Korinsky answers that Zunser's face "couldnít be any more kosher if it was made of gefilte fish and had a herring poking out of each eye." By the time the hapless Pinchas completes the cell population, we know each one's personality and background .
Except for one scene when Zien's Korinsky, an ardent Stalin supporter who considers himself immune from the dictator's sudden outburst of anti-Jewish paranoia gets his requested interview with the Agent in Charge (Byron Jennings), the ninety minutes play out in Michael McGarty's ominously dark cel that lack even the most basic amenitiesl. Russel H. Champa's gloomy lighting abets a seamless temporary transformation of the cell into an office filled with files on each prisoner. The interchange between Jennings' frighteningly cool bureaucrat and Zien's Korinsky is as scarily Kafkaesque as any I've seen on a stage in quite a while.
Ultimately, it's the naive, dedicated young PInchas who keeps this somber story from being unrelentingly downbeat. As Noah Robbins proves himself an equal among a group of older the virtuoso actors,, so his Pinchas proves himself the equal of their characters' legendary story telling.
So, yes The Twenty-Seenth Man is a talky play. It's title character tends to be more believable and less airy-fairy on the page than the stage. And it's not light, escape holiday fare. But its characters and its stage pictures, especially the final one, are sure to stay with you for some time.
The idea for adapting the story for the stage came from the late Nora Ephron and the Public Theater production is dedicated to her memory.
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