Stalin’s fear of a “limitless Jewish conspiracy in the arts” sets up The Twenty-Seventh Man.
What do a clerical error, an old novel, and a misread line of prose have in common? In Josef Stalin’s 1952 Russia, if you were a Yiddish writer, they’d cost your life.
Although he allegedly championed Soviet Jews, even created the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during World War II, in 1948 Stalin arrested 13 members of the JAC and accused them of “counter-revolutionary crimes.” Among them were poets, journalists, novelists, editors, and teachers. The head of the committee, Solomon Mikhoels, was not among them. The actor/director, famous for his Yiddish King Lear, was hit by a car earlier in 1948. His body lay face down in the snow — with nary a tire track nearby.
Before the trial began in 1952, at least four Soviet Jewish writers and intellectuals died in labor camps, prisons, or firing squads.
Nathan Englander’s The Twenty-Seventh Man begins in a cramped Russian prison cell in 1952. For unnamed reasons, military goons have rounded up 26 Yiddish writers: “The last of the literary greats delivered up together, all enemies of the state and all of one tribe.” Their crime, says legendary novelist Yevegny Zunser: they compose in Yiddish, “from right to left on the page.”
Stalin feared a “limitless Jewish conspiracy in the arts.” Thus, his final pogrom (he died a few months later). The year 1952 also witnessed a bloodless purge in America. A large percentage of those labeled “fellow travelers” by the Army-McCarthy hearings were Jewish.
Zunser stopped writing after the Holocaust, he says. “Zunser” died with his loved ones. Now he’s humble old “Melman.” The poet Moishe Bretzky, blacked-out on the floor, could debauch himself to death to no one’s surprise. The life-embracing author of Der Glutton’s a direct descendant of Sir John Falstaff, in temperament if not lineage.
Disillusionment runs through the one-act like a leitmotif. All three prisoners were true believers. Zunser’s surprised to hear that Mikhoels’s death was not an accident. The most disillusioned character was the most “seduced”: the self-flattering elitist, Vasily Korinsky. The author of “Stalin of Silver, Stalin of Gold” was said to be Stalin’s favorite (“I am. And it is”). Korinsky put the party line in poem after poem and swears he’s “innocent in the complete.”
The “27th man” arrives wrapped in a rug. He’s Pinchas Pelovits, a teenager who already has written 15 or 20 novels, plus plays, poems, and essays, or so he says. And never published a word. Yet he can quote Russian literature and recent criticism verbatim. He begs a question loaded with disillusionment: Why Pinchas?
Is he a spy sent to eavesdrop for damning evidence? Is he a genuine writer, as his first request for a pen suggests — and can one be a “writer” without being published? Or is he a Kafkaesque glitch — a clerical error?
In a sense, Pinchas is the author. When he was 19, Englander wrote a short story about 27 Soviet Jewish writers executed the same day, “in very clunky drafts.” It later became “The Twenty-Seventh Man.” Pinchas sees through young eyes. He fills in the history, the biographies, and, one of the best parts of the one-act, has such an ardent love of Yiddish writing that he’s the perfect witness to a tragedy as senseless as it is horrific.
The Twenty-Seventh Man began as a short story. The 90-minute one-act at the Old Globe is more an unthinkable situation than a play. In rambling dialogue and long monoloques the characters often state, rather than feel, their motivations.
Though his actors declaim a good deal, at times peaking in the middle of a speech, director Barry Edelstein delivers a tight staging and a sudden, explosive conclusion.
Hal Linden heads the cast as Zunser (based on Eliakum Zunser, the Lithuanian Yiddish poet?). Though the man died emotionally long ago and obviously welcomes his physical end, Linden makes Zunser’s deep, spiritual concerns unperishable. Ron Orbach’s Rabelaisian Bretzky portrays the soul of Yiddish poetry (though he can be too gargantuan for the intimate White Theatre). At first, Robert Dorfman’s Korinsky appears mannered. But after a while it’s Korsinsky who’s mannered. His tics and takes vanish on the “Night of the Murdered Poets.”
Eli Gelb admirably negotiates the pitfalls of Pinchas Pelovit’s role (at once innocent and yet literarily wise beyond belief). James Shanklin, the Agent in Charge, and Lowell Byers, a Guard/swine, exude generic evil.
Michael McGarty’s set’s a hydraulic wonder and a bit of a puzzle. The prison cell has a coal-black grate on the floor. Once the play begins, the floor rises and the ceiling lowers. Aided by Russell H. Champa’s lighting, the stage picture has an eerie sense of confinement. For an interrogation scene, the ceiling lowers to the floor: the Agent’s office is crammed with incriminating documents.
Then the floor rises and the prison cell reconfigures. It’s brilliant work. But the stage direction calls for a slop bucket, not just a bucket of water. Thus, one of the grisliest moments has been excised from the script: toward the end, the water bucket gets hauled away; now the water bucket and the slop bucket are — or should be — one.
The Twenty-Seventh Man
by Nathan Englander
http://theoldglob...">Old Globe Theatre 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Directed by Barry Edelstein; cast: Hal Linden, Ron Orbach, Robert Dorfman, Eli Gelb; scenic design, Michael McGarty; lighting, Russell H. Champa; costumes, Katherine Roth; sound, Darron L. West
Playing through March 22; Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623