For the ancient Romans, life was short but art endured — “vita brevis, ars longa,” as the Latin saying goes. Alas, the helpless Yiddish writers in Nathan Englander’s first play, “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” directed by Barry Edelstein, can count on neither, as they face the extinction of both their earthly existences and the entire Jewish cultural life of Russia.
Based on his celebrated short story of the same title, Englander’s poignant but ponderous drama, which opened last Sunday evening at the Public Theater, marks the stage debut of a multi-talented writer who seems fated someday to join the pantheon of great American playwrights.
But perhaps not quite yet. To be sure, “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” which centers on a group of Yiddish poets who are about to be executed by the Soviet secret police in 1952, uncovers an important chapter in history that few know much about. Its script, which Englander worked on with the late Nora Ephron, crackles with piercing observations about the artist’s paradoxical role in a totalitarian regime. And the stark, solid production features some wonderful performances and very solid direction.
Yet as a kind of Jewish version of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit,” the play at times feels more claustrophobic and less emotionally liberating than even its horrifically dark theme and setting would demand.
Of the 27 writers who are the play’s subject, only four appear in the play. Yevgeny Zunser, played by Ron Rifkin (a veteran of many of Jon Robin Baitz’s plays), is morose and resigned to his own fate while also managing to be kindly and sympathetic to the troubles of others. (When he sings a lullaby to Pelovits, he reminded me of his rendition of another Yiddish song, “Oyfn Pripetchik,” that his businessman character warbled at the end of Baitz’s “Three Hotels.”)
The breezy, bearish Moishe Bretzky, played by Daniel Oreskes (who played the pragmatic father in Erika Sheffer’s “Russian Transport”), is filled both with liquor and a fast-fading joie de vivre; he consoles himself by dreaming about the brothel where he was apprehended. He returned to Russia from the United States just as Stalin was beginning to target Jewish artists; he wanted, he says, to go down with the others, to “ride out with true joy in my heart, the final voyage of our sinking ship.”
Vasily Korinsky, played by Chip Zien (who created the role of the psychiatrist in William Finn’s musical, “Falsettos”), is clad in a natty blue serge suit; he is opinionated and narcissistic, and he infuriates the other writers with his wholesale acceptance of the glory of Josef Stalin, the tyrant whom he glorifies and propagandizes for in all of his work. In order to distance himself from his own roots, Korinsky deludes himself into thinking that “Judaism isn’t my life. It’s my culture, my language. No more.”
No one knows quite what to make of poor naive Pinchas Pelovits, played by Noah Robbins, who enters the crowded cell barefoot and wrapped in a rug. Even when he emerges from his cocoon, the young writer plays a more incidental role in the play than he did in the story. The play version shifts the focus from the over-eagerness of Pelovits to the disillusionment of Korinsky, which enables it to show that character’s development into a kind of tragic hero, à la John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”
Korinsky, having demanded an interview with the Agent in Charge, played, fiendishly, by Byron Jennings (who was a terrific Antonio in the Public’s recent production of “Merchant of Venice”), is forced to decide whether or not to inform on the other writers in order to save himself — or at least save his reputation and the record of his accomplishments, which the regime has the power to erase from history. There is something brilliantly unsettling in the Agent’s insistence that he needs Korinsky’s written testimony as a form of “storytelling” that possesses its own innate truth; just like Pelovits’ final story, it points to Englander’s belief in the supreme power of the written word.
What makes that scene so powerful is its atmosphere of tension and conflict, which is lacking in most of the scenes in the jail cell. For all their petty jealousies and rivalries, the Yiddish writers have little to do but wait for their inevitable, violent end.
They sustain themselves with wonderful talk, such as a moving discussion of the fate of Solomon Mikhoels, the great Russian Shakespearean actor, considered one of the greatest performers of all time, who was unceremoniously murdered by Stalin’s henchmen. Bretzky recalls sitting in the center of the front row at Mikhoels’ performances, in order “to get as close as I could to such majesty, if only to catch the spit off Mikhoels’ mouth, to feel the wind off those words, the stink of sour cabbage on King Lear’s breath.”
It is an exquisite irony of this production of “The Twenty-Seventh Man” that it is the verbal description of great theater, rather than the actual experience of it. One of the most striking moments of a play that seems strait-jacketed in a form that its author has not yet conquered, and which is thus still struggling to take flight.
“The Twenty-Seventh Man” runs through Dec. 9 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. Performances are Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets, $75-$85, call the box office at (212) 967-7555 or visit tickets.publictheater.org.