It may be less well known than the massacres perpetrated by the Nazis, but the secret mass murder by Stalin of more than a dozen prominent Yiddish writers in 1952 surely stands as one of the most horrific crimes against humanity ever committed. This fall, Nathan Englander’s dramatized version of his chilling short story, “The Twenty Seventh Man,” which addresses the killings, comes to the Public Theater. While the cast has not yet been announced, rumors have it that at least one household name will appear in the production.
Directed by Barry Edelstein, “The Twenty Seventh Man” centers on a young, reclusive, unpublished writer named Pinchas Pelovitz who accidentally ends up as an extra name on a list of 26 celebrated Yiddish writers slated for execution final stage of Stalin’s plan to eradicate Jewish culture in Russia. Pelovitz is stricken first with awe at his inclusion in the group and then with horror; he earns his chops as a writer by reciting a story to his fellow inmates just before they are all dispatched.
Englander, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in West Hempstead, published “The Twenty-Seventh Man” in his 1999 debut collection of short stories, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” tales about Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews that won him comparisons to Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. In 2007, he published a novel, “The Ministry of Special Cases,” about the Dirty War in Argentina. This year, he both provided the translation for Jonathan Safran Foer’s New American Haggadah and came out with a new, highly praised short story collection, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.”
The playwright was unavailable for an interview because he was traveling in Europe to promote the “Anne Frank” collection. But Edelstein told The Jewish Week that the idea to turn the story into a play came originally from the late Nora Ephron, who worked with Englander on the early drafts. The final version, which Edelstein has helped to develop, heralds what he calls the “arrival of a major new voice in the American theater.”
Edelstein noted that while only a handful of top fiction writers have achieved success on the stage, Englander’s play is a “sophisticated, witty, smart piece that feels like a grown-up piece of theater.” The play, which he said is about the “power of art to defeat tyranny” is, in the director’s words, “devastating but also surprisingly funny — leavened with wit and warmth.”
Interest in Stalin’s purge of the writers, which capped off the murder of hundreds of Jewish intellectuals and artists, including the peerless Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, has grown since the 2001 publication of the trial transcripts by Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir Naumov. Reading them, Edelstein said, is so painful that he often cannot get through more than a page. “People were put in situations that twisted them beyond the breaking point. The dignity of these great artists was wrenched away. As it’s been said, ‘Hitler killed the Jewish body, but Stalin killed the Jewish soul.’”
“The Twenty-Seventh Man” begins previews on Nov. 7, opens on Nov. 19 and runs through Dec. 9 at the Public Theater’s Martinson Hall, 425 Lafayette St. For tickets, $75-$80, call the box office at (212) 967-7555 or visit www.publictheater.org.