“The Twenty-Seventh Man,” Nathan Englander’s dark and disturbing political drama about Stalin’s sweeping purge of Russia’s Jewish literary giants, seems to belong on the page rather than the stage. That actually isn’t surprising, since the scribe, a well-regarded literary figure, adapted it from one of his own short stories. But while this imperfect piece is short on drama, it has much to say about the function and duties of the artist in treacherous times.
The intimate stage of the Public’s Martinson Theater is set up for debate in this taut production helmed by Barry Edelstein. Starkly lit (and ominously backlit) by Russell H. Champa, the cube-like playing area designed by Michael McGarty looks like a cell in hell.
That’s more or less what it is, this holding pen for distinguished authors of Yiddish literature who have been rounded up by the state for undisclosed crimes. Other cells hold other eminent writers, 26 in all, who are no doubt experiencing the same Kafkaesque dread that grips the three cellmates here.
In his day, Yevgeny Zunser was a literary giant. Here, in Ron Rifkin’s self-contained and beautifully expressive performance, he’s an old man clinging to life and sanity.
Moishe Bretzky, a hugely dynamic physical presence in Daniel Oreskes’ performance, is the rough-hewn poet of the proletariat, unafraid to call Stalin a ruthless killer.
Vasily Korinsky (Chip Zien) has just been thrown into the cell and is sure it’s been a huge mistake, because he’s the political writer and an avowed communist. Zien plays this deluded intellectual with the passionate conviction of a man who should know better, but really does believe what he writes. (“Stalin would not let it be so!” he hotly declares, when wise old Zunser suggests that they have been arrested because they write in Yiddish.)
Their speculations take a different turn when the 27th and last prisoner is tossed into their cell. Unlike these three worthies, Pinchas Pelovits (Noah Robbins) is a raw youth who has never been published and, indeed, has never written anything.
Although only Korinsky becomes fixated on Pinchas, the others are also curious about why this unexceptional youth has joined their august ranks. This, in turn, leads to some weighty, if circular arguments about writing and writers and why totalitarian regimes fear the written word and persecute writers as enemies of the state.
The ensemble work is especially good in this chamber piece. But in fairness, it must be said that Robbins’ soulful performance as Pinchas — and especially the lovely reading he gives to the story the boy finally writes — is something special.