Nathan Englander's short story, "The Twenty-Seventh Man," from his debut collection, "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges," is so impeccably pulled off, so beautifully composed in the spirit of the great Yiddish writers it depicts that the notion of adapting it to the stage seemed a foolhardy gamble.
Why theatricalize a work that achieves its excellence through the short story virtues of modesty, compression and understatement? Barry Edelstein's stunning production of Englander's dramatization of "The Twenty-Seventh Man" at the Old Globe answers this question with poignant intelligence and grace.
Seeing the play, which Edelstein directed at the Public Theater in New York in 2012, is a different experience from reading the story. Some of the scenes match up, while others are newly invented. But the important point is that these two entities, while related, aren't dependent on each other. Performed by a six-actor ensemble that includes veteran Hal Linden and relative newcomer Eli Gelb in an emotionally resonant turn, the stage version stands on its own merits.
The script may be over-explicit at moments, and it takes time to adjust to characters written as larger-than-life figures in a tale that, though inspired by history, proceeds with a fable-like disregard for realism. But the piece pays haunting tribute to a literary world snuffed out by the Soviets and extends Englander's meditation on writers and conscience and the way poetry survives even when poets are mercilessly being wiped out.
The play's context, sadly, isn't fabricated. After allowing Yiddish writers and intellectuals to thrive in the Soviet Union, Stalin grew paranoid and decided that Soviet Jews posed a danger to his regime.
On what has come to be called "The Night of the Murdered Poets," Stalin had sentenced to death a group of Soviet Jewish intellectuals in a purge that had the effect of silencing, in the program's words, "a Yiddish literary and artistic culture unparalleled at the time anywhere in the world."
Set in 1952, Englander's play takes license in imagining this chilling story, which here begins in the prison cell where four of 27 writers are being held. There were originally supposed to be 26, but another name was mysteriously added at the last minute.
It is the identity of this unknown figure, a young scribbler named Pinchas Pelovits (Gelb), that confounds the illustrious group. His lack of fame suggests that he may have been swept up by accident, yet as someone who'd rather have books than shoes and paper than nourishment, there's no mistaking him for anything but a writer of the purest kind.
Vasily Korinsky (Robert Dorfman), a slick Stalin apologist, believes that he too has been erroneously imprisoned. He's waiting for a reprieve from Stalin and argues bitterly with his fellow inmates when they try to explain that it's his Jewish background and not his politics that has ensnared him in this net.
The other two writers could hardly be more temperamentally different. Pulled from a whorehouse in a drunken stupor, Moishe Bretzky (Ron Orbach) is a poet whose nickname "Der Glutton" understates his prodigious appetites. Yevgeny Zunser, known as Melman (Linden), is the self-effacing elder statesman of the group, a legend who has witnessed far too much atrocity to care anything about legendary status.
"Never outlive your language," he mournfully tells the others. "A curse."
Englander's story focuses on the interactions of the writers and their coming to terms with their hopeless situation. For the play, he adds a scene in which the Agent in Charge (James Shanklin) tries to persuade Korinsky to testify against Pinchas.
Structurally, this doesn't feel completely organic, but the scene allows us to reevaluate our assumptions about Korinsky, who is played by Dorfman with an exaggerated Jon Lovitz-like bray that seems less farfetched over time. More important, it underscores the unique bond these writers have with one another.
The production, which takes place on striking cage-like set by Michael McGarty that's magnificently lighted by Russell H. Champa, is dark and death-haunted. Brutality won't be beaten back — history happened.
But the play finds pockets of redemption in the tenderness these victims of totalitarian insanity bestow on one another. Melman may have borne the most as the eldest, but he's there to provide comfort to Pinchas after he's attacked by the guard (Lowell Byers). Bretzky, too, is willing to overlook his own bodily needs when he sees someone suffering more than he.
Linden and Orbach enter the world of this tale without a trace of sentimentality. Their characters have that objectivity that comes from a surfeit of painful experience, a quality that put me in mind of the razor-edged tales of Isaac Babel. My only complaint is that they and Dorfman's Korinsky are overburdened near the end with explanatory speechifying that is absent from the story and not needed here.
Resembling the kid brother of "Girls" actor Alex Karpovsky, Gelb's Pinchas is the heart of the production. With his acute sensitivity and artistic monomania, this fledgling writer who will perish before he's published but not before his talent is recognized represents more than just the potential poetry that was lost. He is the spirit behind the writing that, as Englander and Edelstein movingly demonstrate in their fruitful collaboration, tyranny cannot vanquish.