The Twenty Seventh Man, a new play by Nathan Englander that just completed a run at the NY Public Theater is based on a short story by the same name published in his book, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.
The story is the historical fiction account of 27 Yiddish writers who were rounded up and executed by Stalin’s Party henchmen. In fact, in 1952 under Stalin’s signatory approval, 26 Jewish writers and activists were arbitrarily arrested as enemies of the state and following a secret trial were executed in a purge known as “The Night of the Murdered Poets.”
As the play opens, three men, recent arrivals in a cold, dimly-lit prison cell are discovering each other’s identities and piecing together the circumstances that linked them with 23 other leading poets, writers, and critics from the Yiddish language Jewish subculture in the Soviet Union being interned. Two of the three, immediately understand the context for this latest chapter in anti-Semitism and quickly realize that the coordinated brutal roundup is an ominous sign for their future. They lament that as a result of Hitler and now Stalin many of their readers have been exterminated and wonder whether, like that famous tree in the forest… can writers exist if there is no one left to read?
But the third, Victor Korinsky (Chip Zien) is convinced he has been detained in error. Korinsky is a loyal Party member and as soon as he is able to see the Agent in Charge (Byron Jennings), he is sure that he’ll clear things up and be released immediately. Surely, Stalin must not be aware of his plight, because he “wouldn’t let them do this to me.” Yevgeny Zunser (Ron Rifkin), the dignified, wise, elder statesman responds, “To you, no…but to the Jew who has your name, lives in your house, and lies next to your wife, yes.” Moishe Gretzky (Daniel Oreskes), the oversized, slovenly alcoholic poet whom Zunser describes as “a big name, a legend for his poetry as much as his antics” rouses from his stupor to second Zunsor’s assessment.
Just as the three figure out what’s going on, the twenty-seventh prisoner is delivered and unceremoniously dumped into their cell, wrapped in a rug. “This one comes gift wrapped” quips the guard. But the last prisoner is an enigma. Pinchas Pelovitz (Noah Robbins), a young aspiring but unpublished author is, despite the circumstances, awed to be in the presence of his literary heroes. Why would Stalin’s thugs bother with a nobody like Pelovitz? This mystery spurs much debate, but in the end they chalk it up to a bureaucratic error. One is left to wonder however, whether Englander meant us to ponder a more sinister allegorical role, i.e., an all-knowing repressive state that sees both perceived and potential threats to their power through the same paranoid lens and squashes them with equal ease and indifference.
During the course of the play Pelovitz works on a story of his own, composing in his head as he has no pen or paper on which to write. In it he imagines he has died and encounters his rabbi in the afterlife, questioning who in his absence will recite the prayer for the dead. In the final scene of the play Pelovitz recounts the story for his cellmates and receives their critical acclaim – fulfilling his dream to be a writer in the instant before the thugs open fire. But as in Pelovitz’ story… with the writers gone, who is to tell the story of their disappearance? Did that tree really ever fall or even exist at all?