THEATER REVIEW: “The Twenty-Seventh Man”

THEATER REVIEW: “The Twenty-Seventh Man”

I guess the event shouldn’t surprise us; it’s just that so few people know about it. In Stalin’s last purge, Soviet Jewish writers, editors and academics were rounded up and killed. The writers were poets, novelists, playwrights and journalists, arguably the best who ever wrote in Yiddish.

The roundup started in 1948; the last were murdered in 1952, just a few months before Stalin’s own death. It has been called the Night of the Murdered Poets. What died there was Yiddish literature.

Nathan Englander and Old Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein adapted Englander’s short story about the purge for the stage. First presented at New York’s Public Theatre (with Edelstein directing), “The Twenty-seventh Man” is in its second production through March 22 at the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, with Edelstein again at the helm.

The setting is a Soviet prison cell, where we will witness the last few hours of three of the best writers in the Yiddish language. Old Yevgeny Zunser, aka Melman (Hal Linden), described as a “legendary writer,” is the éminence grise of the group. Moishe Bretzky (Ron Orbach) is a huge, slovenly poet who likes his whiskey. And Vasily Korinsky (Robert Dorfman), also a poet, is trim, even prissy, and has made it his business over the years to do Stalin’s bidding, which explains his mystification at being jailed and his certainty that there’s been some mistake.

Guards enter the cell with a man wrapped in a carpet, bare feet first, and drop him on the floor. This is the teenaged Pinchas Pelovits, an unpublished writer, who first asks for a pen and paper. Pinchas causes a great deal of – perhaps too much – discussion about who he is and why he is in this group.

Korinsky, who makes a lot of noise about getting an appointment with the Agent in Charge, finally gets that chance, and this becomes the most effective scene in the play (though it is not in the original story).

To Korinsky’s surprise, the Agent (James Shanklin) doesn’t want to release him, but to get him to rat on the others, most especially Pinchas – though why is not clear. Given Stalin’s other atrocities, it’s difficult to imagine he would feel the need of justification to kill this kid. But this interview is a masterful example of how words can be used and twisted to suit one’s purpose.

Most of the rest of the play is less dramatic, even a bit static, with the characters either wondering about Pinchas or picking at each other.

Finally, though, with nothing to do but await the inevitable, they talk about writing and ponder the pointlessness of their situation. Korinsky asks Bretzky why, when he actually got out of Russia to the United States, he came back.

“I came back to be a part of the finest group of Yiddish artists that ever was ... to ride out with true joy in my heart the final voyage of our sinking ship,” he says.

Korinsky may be the saddest of all: He believes till near the end that he will get out alive.

Zunser is resigned to his fate, which is perhaps easier for an old man who stopped writing when his wife died and feels he’s dead already: “Life ended for me on the day of her death.”

Pinchas has a more basic concern: “Is it as a writer I die?” Zunser responds: “The writer writes. Stories are told. That is all.”

These fine actors breathe life into a somewhat static script. Dorfman’s self-important Korinsky contrasts nicely with Linden’s humble Zunser and Orbach’s casual, hard-drinking Bretzky; all wonder about Pinchas (who will, at Zunser’s urging, write the last story any of them will hear, in his head).

Though these characters are all imaginary, the purge is not. Bretzky puts it this way: “Hitler was trying to kill the Jewish body, but Stalin ... had a better plan. He was going to kill the Jewish soul.”

Zunser puts it succinctly: “Never outlive your language. A curse.”

The details

“The Twenty-Seventh Man” plays through March 22 at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park in San Diego, California.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.