In an era when every email, tweet, blog and cat video resides for eternity on the Internet, it is hard to fathom any power that could erase every trace of a person’s body of work along with their very existence. Yet, that is exactly what happened, in 1952, to not one but dozens of celebrated Jewish writers in Stalin’s Soviet Union.
“The Twenty-Seventh Man,” receiving its West Coast premiere at The Old Globe, imagines the final hours of four such men and explores the importance of writing in troubled times.
During the 1930s, Yiddish literature and culture flourished in the Soviet Union. But times change and, after WWII, a paranoid Stalin becomes convinced of a “Jewish conspiracy in the arts.” This leads to the round up and summary execution of dozens of writers. The story opens with three prisoners sharing a cell in a Soviet prison. There is the arrogant Vasily Korinsky (Robert Dorfman). A staunch Stalin supporter, Korinsky has an over-inflated sense of his talent and flatters himself that he’s in detention among the “lions of Yiddish literature.” Never mind that much of Korinsky’s talent has been squandered over the years writing Soviet propaganda. Yevgeny Zunser (Tony and Emmy-winner Hal Linden) has had a long and respected literary career that he abruptly abandoned years ago. Despite being dragged from his home at dawn, he is formally dressed in a suit jacket and vest befitting his role as elder statesman of the group. Poet Moish Bretzky (Broadway veteran Ron Orbach) is a “true lover of vodka and its country of origin.” Our first glimpse of him is snoring loudly on the cell floor sleeping off a night of carousing.
With nothing but time on their hands, conversation seesaws from “why me?” to gallows humor to carping about the merits of each other’s work. Korinsky mocks Bretzky’s bawdy poetry. Bretzky characterizes Korinsky as a Soviet lap dog. Amidst the name calling, Zunser returns the focus to the true nature of their entrapment. “The fifth line,” he says. “The one in our passports stamped Jew.”
Korinsky continues to cry foul, convinced his arrest is a clerical error. His ceaseless demand to see the Agent in Charge (James Shanklin in a chilling performance) is finally granted, but, instead of clearing the air, Korinsky is reduced to utter hopelessness as his every utterance is hurled back at him as evidence supporting his condemnation.
Appearances by the Guard (Lowell Byers) are brief but deliver maximum effect as he administers a beating, grudgingly offers a meal consisting of a single potato, or shouts the prisoners into silence at lights out. You, too, will dread the sound of his approaching footsteps. At one point, the Guard enters the cell with a rolled carpet that he roughly unfurls, dumping onto the hard floor a young, barefoot man. This twenty-seventh man is Pinchas Pelovits (Eli Gelb), a “nobody” who has spent every waking moment producing novels he has never published. Pelovits is as mystified as the others as to why they share a common fate.
Seeking to make sense of it all, a philosophical discussion emerges on identity, culture and the power for stories to transcend time and circumstances. Proof positive is, absent pen and paper, Pelovits composes a story in his head. Reciting it to the others, he is rewarded when Zunser proclaims it a masterpiece. Offstage, the faint sound of the first gunshot is heard.
There is no surprise ending. Yet, when it arrives, it hits with a ton of bricks punctuated by a one-two punch by sound designer Darron L. West and lighting designer Russell H. Champa. It is striking that after thunderous applause for the cast, the audience exited the theater in reverent silence.
Scenic designer Michael McGarty’s claustrophobic set uses the Globe’s theater in the round to good advantage; the audience feels it is peering at the action from adjacent cells. Hard surfaces, cage-like wires, and sharp angles convey a bone-chilling space lacking any comfort.
Costume designer Katherine Roth perfectly pairs apparel to each character’s personality: Dapper Zunser, disheveled Bretzky, tightly buttoned Korinsky, lost-in-his-clothes Pelovits and the spit-and-polish Guard and Agent in Charge.
Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein directed the play’s premiere in 2012, in New York. Back at the helm of an excellent San Diego cast, all of the performances are authoritative and compelling with riveting moments by Eli Gelb as Pelovits who, despite his tender age, holds his own against actors with decades on stage.
This debut play by author Nathan Englander is adapted from his acclaimed short story of the same name. A work of fiction, writing it proved prophetic. After the fall of the Soviet Union, records revealed the truth about the executions kept secret for 40 years. Ironic, that in its zeal to erase the words of these writers from history, fanatical record keeping would ultimately lead to the truth.