The Twenty-Seventh Man

Here’s Judith Miller writing in Tablet on a powerful new play by Nathan Englander now running at New York City’s Public Theater:

. . . The Twenty-Seventh Man is based on a real incident—“The Night of the Murdered Poets,” about which too little is known. The name refers to the evening on which Stalin executed 26 Yiddish writers in the summer of 1952, only months before his own death. Among them were several of the Yiddish language’s greatest poets, playwrights, novelists and journalists—Peretz Markish, Leib Kvitko, Dovid Bergelson, Itzik Fefer, David Hofshteyn, Benjamin Zuskin, Leon Talmy, and Ilya Vatenberg. Where and how they died remained unknown until the collapse of the Soviet Union. But their murders were said to have ended a Yiddish literary and artistic culture without equal anywhere in the world. Englander told one interviewer that since the writers were killed “without their last story being told,” he felt that “somebody should write them a story.’ ”

And what a poignant story he has told. At first, the three prison mates whom Stalin’s secret police have arrested—all giants of Yiddish literature in Russia—react to their plight with literary banter born of disbelief and denial. They try to shrug off their ominous incarceration with literary insults and Jewish jokes. Vasily Korinsky (Chip Zien), a true believer in Communist claptrap, a proud Party man who writes paeans to Stalin in verse, only half jokingly describes himself as “the most recognizable writer in this nation.” Clearly his arrest has been an “error,” an “oversight” that will be rectified if and when he can speak to The Agent in Charge . . .

He is wrong.

No apologies for writing that. Only an Eric Hobsbawm would claim that it’s a spoiler.

I saw The Twenty-Seventh Man on Friday night and it is, as Miller writes, a “small play”, a modest production, a chamber piece, really, but in the respects that count, it is a very big play indeed.  

And the performances, especially those of Chip Zien and Byron Jennings as the Agent in Charge are remarkable.

Highly recommended. 

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