San Diego, CA—“No good deed goes unpunished.” Vasily Korinsky learned that the hard way. The poet Korinsky (Robert Dorfman), according to Nathan Englander, author of the “Twenty Seventh Man” currently seen in a west coast premiere on the Sheryl and Harvey White Stage of the Old Globe Theatre, was one of Stalin’s staunchest loyalists. So why wasn’t his life spared when Stalin rounded up and killed all the Yiddish Artists, writers, poets, scholars, teachers?
Contrary to Korinsky’s thinking this was not exclusively about him. No, it was about Jews in general and in particular Jews of literary acclaim. He just happened to be one of those who, on ‘The Night of the Murdered Poets’, was included in Nathan Englander’ eye opening yet static new play, “The Twenty Seventh Man”, directed with deftness by Artistic Director Barry Edelstein with the help of a top notch cast.
This is Edelstein’s second staging of Englander’s play. It had its world premiere at the Public Theatre in New York before he came San Diego.
In 1952 Stalin got a bug up his behind that all the renowned Yiddish scholars and literary names, who at one time did his bidding and raised tons of money for the Red Army, were now traitors to the cause. Did not the fact that he had previously rounded up and slaughtered million’s of Jews ever occur to Korinsky?
Case in point, Stalin was massacring Jews, starving Jews, torturing Jews, purging and executing (his largest purge, over a half million, was in 1936-7) Jews throughout the early fifties. In 1948 Yiddish Theatres, Yiddish Publishing Houses, Yiddish Newspapers, local Jewish Schools, the library of Yiddish and Hebrew books and The Moscow State Jewish Theatre were shut down.
It is at this time in history, 1952 that Englander picks up his story (which comes originally from his collection of short stories published in 1999 “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges”) that we find ourselves in a gulag looking in on three of the more prolific, yet fictionalized, well-known Russian Poets and literary giants and one wannabe (not published) smaller giant all engaged in a philosophical discussion about their art and the state of affairs.
The discussions are oft times heated, oft times humorous yet always with an eye to an already doomed death.
Korinsky, wonderfully portrayed by Dorfman is shown as the dapper Dan, self assured and self possessed, full of himself and over flowing with confidence until the rug is pulled out from under him when he is finally summoned to the Agent in Charge (James Shanklin) and asked to rat on his fellow comrades. Dorfman’s dapperly and stylishly dressed with matching blue jacket and trousers as compared to Orbach’s unruly and layered with heavy clothing to the barefooted and gangling Gelb to the easy style of Linden’s dress emphasizes the period beautifully. Credit Katherine Roth for the diversity in styles.
The elder, Yevgeny Zunzer played by Hal Linden is the most revered. Linden a pro whose grace and dignity bring a sense of regal reality to the set is the pragmatist of the four. In a way, he anchors the play. Never having to prove his success as a legendary writer or for that matter his prominence, Linden’s Zunger also brings a sense of levity: “The last of the literary greats delivered up together, all enemies of the state and all of one tribe”. All Yiddishists, to boot.”
But it’s Zunser, as well who really nails it when he connects the dots in understanding the ‘why’ of their roundup by declaring that it’s “The fifth line. The one on our passports stamped Jew.” That was a heart stopping moment. Even his comrade’s didn’t get it at first.
Ron Orbach’s bigger than life poet Moishe Bretzky, is another giant with whom to be reckoned. When we first meet him Korinsky kicks him awake from a drunken sleep. Korinsky: “Oh, God! Locked up with a senile and a corpse.” Zunser: “You can see his chest moves up and down. He’s just passed out…and plenty pickled. If he dies, I wouldn’t worry. He’ll keep for a lot longer than you.”
He comes to disheveled and looming over the rest. Korinsky and Bretzky go at it throwing insults at each other one after the other (“Behave, Korinsky. I swear, if I have to, I’ll close that mouth of yours myself”. ).
When the cell door opens and a fourth man wrapped in a rug and barefooted is tossed into the room Zunser and Bretszky rush to free the man whose name, we find out some time later, is Pinchas Pelovits (Eli Gelb). He is the 27th man. Zunser: “We are the twenty-seven all together. That was the order from Stalin himself.” When pressed as to who he was and what his literary achievements were Pinchas simply answeres, “I am…can someone be no one?” Little understood by the boy himself, he is in fact someone. He is the would be voice of future thinkers.
And so for ninety minutes, the dialogue continues between the greats, the philosophical exchanges, the meaning of communism, party loyalty, identity, and what it means to be a Yiddish writer in in Stalin’s Russia.
While the three ponder these and other matters of the heart and state, it’s Eli Gelb’s Pinchas that doesn’t give in, doesn’t give up, has never been published but continues to write, even if composing in his head. He has one last short story that is revealed just before the final curtain. It is about a man in prison who awakes to discover that he and the rest of the world have died. “Is it as a writer that I die?”
Surely Englander brings to the fore a little known piece of history that could have easily been forgotten but for Englander’s research and perseverance to keep it alive. Aside from the fact that it is too talky and reads better as a short story than plays out as a play, in the end it has to touch the nerves of every human being that has ever been persecuted, tortured, singled out, threatened with life and limb and/or been ridiculed for being different.
Michael McGarty’s steel platform set, with steel grids forming the cage like walls and Russell H. Champa’s dim to overly bright lights and Darron L.West’s ominous sounds of gunshots and steel doors clanging shut set the eerie background for ”The Twenty- Seventh Man”
According to Stanford News Report dated September 23rd 2010:
“When it comes to use of the word “genocide,” public opinion has been kinder to Stalin than Hitler. But one historian looks at Stalin’s mass killings and urges that the definition of genocide be widened.”
Bretzky: “Hitler was trying to kill the Jewish body…Stalin was going to kill the Jewish soul.”
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through March 22nd
Organization: The Old Globe Theatre
Production Type: Drama
Where: 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Ticket Prices: Start @$29.00
Venue: Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre