Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Nathan Englander used this historic event as the basis for The Twenty-Seventh Man, a play based on Englander's short story of the same name. The play is being given its area premiere by the Minnesota Jewish Theater Company.
Englander deviates in some notable ways from the historic record. Rather than fifteen detainees, he posits twenty-six. Further, he makes all twenty-six revered writers, masters of Yiddish poetry and prose, so that their combined removal is a death knell to the very existence of Yiddish culture and a stake in the heart of the Soviet Union's large Jewish community. Our window into this mass arrest is a cell holding three of these authors.
Into the cell is brought the titular twenty-seventh man: a young man with no status, no accomplishments that could possibly be interpreted as succor to the Jewish community or a threat to the Soviet state. This man, Pinchas Pelovits, does write, prolifically, novels, poems, plays, and stories but has had not a page published. He lives a hermetic life devoted totally to writing, and writing, and writing but never revealing a word. Pinchas is well read and amazed to find himself imprisoned in the company of these literary lions, but has no idea what he has done to be arrested.
His three cellmates struggle to unravel the mystery. Unjust as it is, they understand why they are in prison, as beacons of Yiddish culture. But this unknown young man who has had impact on no one? What can it mean for him to be among them? Throughout The Twenty-Seventh Man we observe their efforts to unravel this mystery, along the way speculating on the lasting impact of their work, describing the circumstances of their arrests, and pondering the future of Russian Jewry.
Though Englander does not use the names of the real murdered writers, his Vasily Korinsky can be seen as a stand in for the actual poet Itzik Feffer who, alone among victims of this purge, turned informant to the Soviet authorities and made much of his loyal membership in the Communist Party. Korinsky, confident of his status among Soviet leaders, even to Stalin himself, feels certain he will be promptly released. Then he is summoned to meet with the Agent in Charge, who has a very different idea of Korinsky's usefulness to the party.
There is much to commend in The Twenty-Seventh Man. It casts light on an important, little known chapter in historynot only history of the Jews, but of the ways in which totalitarianism takes hold. The three great writers are each distinctive characters: Korinsky, a pragmatist wrapped in the thoughts of the new age; Yevgeny Zunser, a revered ethicist; and Moishe Bretzky, a hedonist. Pinchas Pelovits is a beguiling conceit, an innocent everyman who, to the outside world, has accomplished nothing, but whose interior being holds a bounty of invention.
Unfortunately, Englander weighs down
The Twenty-Seventh Man with talk. The characters telling us, rather than the showing us, how things came to this impasse. The viewpoints of the three elder writers are established early on, and their continued dialogue feels like reassertions of these, without covering new ground. Little happens. Only the scenes between Korinsky and the Agent in Charge feel dynamic, as the agent whittles away at Korinsky's presumed influence to establish his own. There is a tension in this scene absent from most of the play.
Of the performances, Michael Torsch is striking as the naive Pinchas, who remains single-mindedly dedicated to his anonymous writing, oblivious to his own inner power. Torsch convinces us of Pinchas' ability to maintain an inner light in the face of the gathering doom. Gabriel Murphy gives a strong portrayal of the conceited and self-serving Korinsky, maintaining his stony confidence until he is forced to have it dissolve into a heartbreaking pool of regret. Skyler Nowinski, as the Agent in Charge, at first seems too mild mannered for the part, but his ability to sell his own power with every swipe at his prisoner makes the nature of his evil all the more insidious.
Michael Kissin plays Yevgeny Zunser as a great man in defeat, not dwelling on the pain which Zunser has already endured nor the annihilation he anticipates. His subtle performance risks being too restrained, but in the end shows us how a man lives after he has given up on life. Jôher Coleman, however, fails to bring the force of nature one expects of Moishe Bretzky, the hedonist who, until the end took hold of life, took enormous chances in order to live life to the fullest. Naveh Shavit-Lonstein has the small part of a prison guard with little to do, but his very youth makes a statement, the image of how innocent soft-skinned boys are groomed to be instruments of torture and oppression.
Kurt Schweickhardt directs The Twenty-Seventh Man and, perhaps with a more vigorous approach, the repetitive talk could have become more provocative and engaging. As it is, it feels like, once the premise and the participants are established, the play reintroduces them to us over and over, rather than striking new ground with each exchange.
Tech and design credits are strong throughout, with apt sound design indicating the clanging of prison doors, the muted shouts of prisoners in other cells, and the final moments. Each prisoner is dressed in a manner befitting the life he livedZunser, with the look of a bookish scholar, Bretzky in garb befitting a trip to the tavern, Korinsky a dapper gent accustomed to the corridors of power, and Pinchas Pelovits, barefoot and unassuming.
The Twenty-Seventh Man offers a window into history and provokes challenging thoughts about the role of literature and language in the endurance of a people, and the relative value of celebrated and common men. If only the play itself had the gravitational force of the issues it raises, it could be a powerful work of theater.
The Twenty-Seventh Man continues through November 8, 2015 at the Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul, Minnesota. Tickets: $20.00 - $32.00, Student Rush tickets: $12.00. For tickets call 651-647-4315 or go to mnjewishtheatre.org.
Written by Nathan Englander; Director: Kurt Schweickhardt; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Annie Cady; Lighting Design: Paul Epton; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Technical Director: Justin Hooper; Stage manager: Kelli Tucker
Cast: Jôher Coleman (Moishe Bretzky), Michael Kissin (Yevgeny Zunser), Gabriel Murphy (Vasily Korinsky), Skyler Nowinski (Agent in Charge), Naveh Shavit-Lonstein (Guard), Michael Torsch (Pinchas Pelovits).