review: the twenty-seventh man

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The Twenty-Seventh Man

By Nathan Englander
Directed by Barry Edelstein
Featuring Ron Rifkin, Noah Robbins, Chip Zien
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
November 11, 2012  — December 16, 2012
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
November 19, 2012

(L-R) Ron Rifkin, Noah Robbins. Image credit AP.
(L-R) Ron Rifkin, Noah Robbins. Image credit AP.

A literary adaptation that tells a tale as a piece of theatre rather than a narrated script reading (yes, I’m looking at you My Name is Asher Lev), Nathan Englander’s theatrical adaptation of his own The Twenty-Seventh Man quietly rivets us while production elements fascinate us and direction focuses us on a devastating apparently true tale of Stalinist murder.

We begin in medias res with several of what we soon learn to be 27 men gathered by Stalin’s men for their Jewish writings in 1952.  Established Yiddish writers in middle age know each other’s reputations, banter amongst themselves, share old rivalries. Vasily (Chip Zien), Yevgeny (Ron Rivkin), and Moishe (Daniel Oreskes) are men known to each other. Dressed in suits and whatever they were wearing when soldiers came to their doors, they complain about the cold, attempt to talk about literature rather than the dire reality around them, and wonder about all that they are not being told about why they have been imprisoned. Spare references are made to the Stalinist repression around them. What we know as an audience is that these men have been imprisoned through the exercise of brute force, and the occasional gun shot throughout the playing time tells us that some among their fellow prisoners are being executed. The last of the 27 to join several others in our three walled, low ceiling-ed single prison cell is a young boy Pinchas (Noah Robbins), who seems the odd person out in the assemblage.  He has not been published, he has spent his life reading. He knows who the other men in the cell are yet he is a learned autodidact.  A guard played by Happy Anderson demonstrates malevolent brute force, and Byron Jennings as the Agent in Charge (the head of the prison) demonstrates sinister deal making that pinpoints another of the men as a possibility for the twenty-seventh man, the outsider, the man who sees himself as different from his comrades.

I react to this piece not as literature in translation (I don’t know the original short story) but as a spare piece of thoughtful, word-focused and deliciously designed theatre. The exquisite set of sliding pieces and final set shifting surprise is designed by Michael McGarty, and the lighting design of sheer planes and shadows is designed by Russell H. Champa.

Power and devastation in an intermission-less wash of history as theatre at the Public. Beautiful.

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 12, 2012)

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