Young Pinchas (the astonishing Noah Robbins) burns with a love of letters. Abducted by Soviet thugs, he has been wrapped in a carpet and dumped onto the floor of a dank prison cell, where—barefoot, beaten and starving—he immediately cries out for what he needs most urgently: “A piece of paper! A pen!” None are forthcoming, but Pinchas is delighted to learn that his cell mates are towering figures of Yiddish writing: Bretzky (Daniel Oreskes), a poet with exorbitant appetites; Korinsky (Chip Zien), who writes encomia to the Communist way; and the wise literary lion Zunser (a poignant Ron Rifkin). On Stalin’s personal orders, they are among 27 Jewish litterateurs slated to be killed on trumped-up charges of treason. But how has Pinchas, who has never published a word, wound up in their doomed company?
Nathan Englander’s exquisite The Twenty-Seventh Man is in some sense a kaddish for a Yiddish world that was systematically erased, first by Hitler’s ovens (“My readers are smoke,” Zunser notes) and then by Stalin’s purges (including the massacre known as the Night of the Murdered Poets). But Englander’s play doesn’t just mourn that sensibility; it reproduces it with profoundly beautiful layers of irony, resignation, righteous anger, gallows humor and philosophical disputation. Directed by Barry Edelstein with quiet dignity and grace, The Twenty-Seventh Man is as chilling and haunted as a ghost story. The final scene brought tears to my face, not just in the theater but in writing this sentence: for what was lost, and even more, for all that was never to be.—Adam Feldman
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