The Twenty-Seventh Man
Genocide is too big to be considered all at once; like a Bosch painting it is just as horrific in the details as it is when perceived as a whole. "The Twenty-Seventh Man," now playing at the Public, isolates a small group of men among the millions affected by Stalin's regime to paint a larger picture about the indifference and cruelty of the totalitarian state and the seeming randomness with which it carries out its dark business.
As the play opens, three men in a drafty jail cell are joined by a fourth, young Pinchas Pelovits (Noah Robbins), an aspiring writer who lives above an inn and dreams of one day emulating his literary idols like Yevgeny Zunser (Ron Rifkin) and Moishe Bretzky (Daniel Oreskes). Suddenly he finds himself in a room with these men, plus Vasily Korinsky (Chip Zien), three leading lights of Soviet Jewish literature who have been imprisoned together.
Zunser and Bretzky are not surprised, but for Korinsky, the news comes as a shock in light of his previous support in his work for Stalin's government. The three have realized that Stalin plans to imprison and possibly execute twenty-six of the Jewish writers whose work he had celebrated earlier in his rule -- but what was Pinchas Pelovits' crime? And what crime have any of them committed?
Author Nathan Englander ("For The Relief Of Unbearable Urges") adapts his own short story and keeps the arguments among the men dynamic and novel within their confines. (Interestingly, the program notes that Englander sought help from the late Nora Ephron for this work, although it's as different from a Nora Ephron movie as can be imagined.)
"The Twenty-Seventh Man" represents a powerhouse of acting, yet all the performances are finely tuned to each other, with no actor grandstanding against the others. Its most harrowing scene, in which Korinsky is summoned to meet with the agent in charge (Byron Jennings, credited as "Agent in Charge") hoping to intervene on behalf of his fellow writers, only to find that the powers that be have no interest in saving him, lets that shock play out over Zien's face as his rhetoric fails and he shrinks into the stoop-shouldered posture of the others, that of horror and resignation twinned.
Highlighting this less well known incident in Soviet history, Englander has used as if to incant many of the names of the writers involved -- who were threatened that their literary productions would be snuffed out in history just like their names -- and renewed the horror of what had been done to them.
"The Twenty-Seventh Man" runs through Dec. 16 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. For tickets and more information, please visit publictheater.org.