The twenty-seven men are Nathan Englander’s evocation of the Yiddish writers executed by Joseph Stalin in 1952 on the infamous Night of the Murdered Poets. Executed for the crime of writing while Jewish, they were sentenced in a Russian show trial held as part of the Stalinist decision to annihilate Jewish culture in the Soviet Union. Stalin’s planned mass deportation of Jews to an empty patch of ground along the trans-Siberian railway was halted by Stalin’s death in 1952, but the great Yiddish writers were already dead.
The Twenty-Seventh Man was one Englander’s first published stories, he has turned it into riveting drama that challenges the mind as it engages the heart.
Daniel Oreskes, Ron Rifkin, Noah Robbins and Chip Zien are a compelling cast. Robbins captures hearts as a youth whose head is so bursting with ideas that he can hardly write fast enough to get them all down. Ron Rifkin doesn’t so much play an aging Yiddish writer as he inhabits one. Through him we experience the pain of watching the Jewish world go up in the smoke of a burnt offering to an anti-Semitic ideology.
Rifkin’s pain feels as authentic as his ability to pronounce the letter “chet”. It probably is. He was born to parents who had immigrated to New York from that vanished world.
The Yiddish writers Stalin murdered were not dissidents or anti-Communist activists. Some were men who had dreamed the Marxist dream and worked to build the Revolution. Jewish Marxism in its infinite ideological varieties attracted more Jews than any other political movement because it made two irresistible promises. To a people suffering from bone-grinding poverty, Marxism promised a good life. And to a people suffering from violent and oppressive anti-Semitism, Marxism offered universal brotherhood. Very few had the prescience to see Marxist promises as the fool’s paradise they would prove to be.
But in a season when the last of the unreconstructed Stalinist Jewish intellectuals, Eric Hobsbawm, has just died safely in his bed in England, it is not inappropriate to ask at what point Russian Jewish intellectuals ought to have woken up from the Marxist dream and seen the Communist regime for what it was. When the Party turned on Lenin? During the Great Purge of 1936? At the signing of the non-aggression pact between Stalin and Hitler in 1939? Englander is devastatingly incisive best when he asks his characters to account for their loyalty to Stalin.
Then he ratchets up the pressure by putting an important proposition into the mouth of a Stalinist functionary: in order for a lie to have power, you have to believe in it.
When it became necessary for Russian Communists in good standing to believe in an evil international Jewish conspiracy, it also became necessary for Jewish Communists confront the truth about anti-Semitism. They face us, waiting for death sentences to be meted out not because they have betrayed the Party, but simply because they are Jews. We watch them confront the fact that they have betrayed themselves by believing in a great lie about an international Marxist brotherhood that rose above differences of race and ethnicity. Only to discover that their comrades were capable of murderous Jew-hatred.
This is compelling theater. And it was especially evocative on this night, with Hamas firing rockets at civilian targets in Israel. The irrational Jew-hatred of Soviet Russia, the irrational Jew hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hamas-controlled Gaza, the murder of Jews simply for being Jewish.
The staging and set were starkly perfect, until the final scene, when it achieved stunningly splendid realism.
When it ended, we held our breath. How could we applaud barbarity? Then the lights came up and the pre-opening crowd roared our approval.
At the Public Theater in New York
Criticizing the Critics
Puzzled this morning by Charles Isherwood’s review. The audience I saw it with was absolutely rapt. None of the rustling, shifting, noisiness that began half-way through David Manet’s Anarchist on Saturday night.
Maybe Isherwood also saw both plays and put this sentence in the worng review, ” a sense of dreary stasis slowly envelops the play as the academic arguments drag on. You feel as if you’re slowly sinking into a kind of literary quicksand,…” Now that is how the audience at the Mamet play felt.
The audience at Englander’s “Twenty-Seventh Man” was rapt. Sometimes amused or shocked. But absolutely riveted. Does it matter that critics sit in the front rows, and don’t experience the focused tension of the audience.
Or is it just that Isherwood is bored with dramatic tension that revolves around the plight of a people.
A Critic with Insight