Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
February 27, 2015
A writer writing about writers. A story about storytelling.
Nathan Englander’s “The Twenty-Seventh Man” is a slice of Soviet history that was barely known until the KGB files were opened in the 1990s. It’s a tragic tale that, sadly, keeps repeating. The theater program informs us that, last year, 900 writers around the world were jailed, harassed or killed.
This particular annihilation occurred in 1952, when Stalin rounded up all the foremost Yiddish novelists and poets and had them executed on the same day.
In Englander’s short story, published in 1999, there were 26 well-known writers thrown in prison. A very young man, a total unknown, was tossed in with them.
Englander’s stage version premiered at New York’s Public Theatre in 2012, directed by Barry Edelstein, who’d worked extensively with the writer in shaping the play. Now artistic director of The Old Globe, Edelstein is presenting the work’s West coast premiere.
It’s not easy to create the claustrophobia of a prison cell on an arena stage, but the design team has fashioned a magically morphing metal square, stunningly lit. Edelstein shepherds his stellar cast with wit and sensitivity. Yes, there’s humor. Four Jews in a confined space; you think there wouldn’t be jokes?
But the situation is no laughing matter. The men realize they’re doomed, even the arrogant Stalin loyalist, Korinsky , who’s initially played by Robert Dorfman a bit fey and over-the-top. But after his Kafkaesque interaction with the Agent in Charge, he’s brought down to size. The other prisoners, representing the great Yiddish writers from a vast, flourishing community, are the wonderful Ron Ohrbach as the hilarious boozer Bretzky , The Glutton, and a superbly calibrated Hal Linden as the wise, wizened Zunser . The young man, who wonders to the end why he’s there, and if he really qualifies as a writer, is wide-eyed, thoroughly convincing Eli Gelb, who gets to tell the group’s last story.
The conversation throughout is intense, philosophical, lyrical and thought-provoking. You won’t forget this play any time soon.
“The Twenty-Seventh Man ” has been extended through March 22, in the Old Globe’s White Theatre in Balboa Park.
©2015 PAT LAUNER