BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
“The Twenty-Seventh Man” is a compelling new drama by Nathan Englander inspired by a horrifying real-life massacre in 1952 when the Soviet government, on the orders of Joseph Stalin, rounded up and executed the leading lights of Yiddish literature.
Currently playing at the Public Theater, the 90-minute drama skillfully mixes history and fiction with deeply-felt acting to provide a troubling – yet uplifting – account of gifted individuals contemplating not only their likely deaths but the eradication of their treasured culture.
Three distinguished writers find themselves sharing a dismal cell. Korinsky (Chip Zien) is the boastful poet who has glorified Stalin and the Soviet state in his work. Bretzky (Daniel Oreskes) is a lusty celebrant of wine and women. Zunser (Ron Rifkin) is an elderly, beloved author who has laid down his pen in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
The men trade barbs and speculate about their situation. Then a fourth prisoner is thrown into the cell. A very young man, Pelovits (Noah Robbins) turns out to be a driven but unpublished writer who later is revealed to be there by mistake. And so they await their fate.
When Korinsky at last meets with a government agent (an icy Byron Jennings) their interview warps into a frightening doublespeak game that shatters the party-line poet. Recognizing their doom, the writers ruefully reflect upon their vanishing world. A story that Pelovits desperately composes in his head provides a touching coda for Englander’s dark and affecting drama.
Barry Edelstein, the director, delivers a very well-acted production on a stark setting designed by Michael McGarty that harbors several dramatic shocks. Russell H. Champa’s sculptural lighting lends gravity to the characters, who are dressed appropriately by Katherine Roth.
Usually employed by musicals, Chip Zien vividly depicts Korinsky, whose egotistic confidence melts into desolation. Daniel Oreskes imbues a hard-living poet with a sympathetic heart. Noah Robbins is poignant as the frail, fervent Pelovits. Ron Rifkin quietly portrays the kindly Zunser whose abiding wisdom seems to understand even the nightmare that descends upon them.
“The Twenty-Seventh Man” continues through Dec. 18 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York. Call (212) 967-7555 or visit www.publictheater.org.