Few people have heard of the Cold War-era event when Joseph Stalin rounded up professional writers, poets and journalists and had them murdered for work that was not “nationalist in form or Soviet in content.” In the West Coast premiere of “The Twenty-seventh Man,” playwright Nathan Englander enlightens us. It’s a show not to miss.
The arrests were unexpected since the work of Soviet Jewish writers was established in Yiddish schools, publishing houses, newspapers and theaters. According to background about the production, when Englander read about the atrocity it bothered him for years until he decided to write this play so those executed would not remain silenced.
The minimal set at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre is a perfect match for the drama that unfolds brilliantly thanks to the amazing cast.
When the curtain rises, four writers are arrested and thrown into prison to await their judgment. Hal Linden plays well-known Yiddish author Yevgeny Zunser with a very even tone. When Yevgeny speaks about the injustice of what’s happened to him and the others in their jail cell, it’s the flair of his words that, even in desperation, are profound and without fear.
“It’s like I’m one man with two lives,” he says. Linden can bring any character to life, as proven by his many theatrical awards and nominations.
Robert Dorfman is equally dominant as Vasily Korinsky, a contrite Jewish man determined that he will be released by Stalin to whom he’s been loyal. Dorfman’s ability to infuse Korinsky with delightful humor (especially when he’s mad), wit, and ultimately, bewilderment, when he questions his own statement that, “The Party doesn’t forget its own.”
When Ron Orbach’s character, Moishe Bretzky, is rudely awakened from a drunken stupor as he lays on the cell floor, the audience appreciates the comic relief. Korinsky mocks him, but he can take more from his cellmates than they can give, and adds a lot of humor to this retelling of a tragic event in history.
It’s when the Guard (Lowell Byers) brings a barefoot young man and throws him into the cell that personalities ignite as the characters delve into why this kid is accused of the same crimes they are.
Eli Gelb portrays Pinchas Pelovits, a novice writer defined by his perceptions of the moment. Because his works have never been published, his cellmates do not understand why he’s in jail. Gelb enriches Pelovits with an energetic and gratifying joy over meeting these writers. When they caution him to beware of the situation, he’s too euphoric about where he is to worry about why he’s there.
Englander’s script, in the hands of Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein and this superb cast, makes for a thoroughly engaging night at the theater.
• IF YOU GO: ‘The Twenty-seventh Man’ runs matinees, evenings through March 15 at The Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park. Tickets from $29 at TheOldGlobe.org and (619) 23-GLOBE.