Daniel Oreskes, Ron Rifkin, and Noah Robbins in <i>The Twenty-Seventh Man</i>
Daniel Oreskes, Ron Rifkin, and Noah Robbins in The Twenty-Seventh Man
(© Joan Marcus)
Exemplary source material does not always make for a great play, as evidenced by The Twenty-Seventh Man, receiving its world premiere at The Public Theater under Barry Edelstein's direction. Adapted by award-winning author Nathan Englander from his remarkable short story of the same name, both the play and short story are inspired by an actual incident, in which a number of Jewish intellectuals were rounded up and executed per Stalin's orders. The work has a flawed construction, even if the ending still proves worthwhile.

Set in Soviet Russia in 1952, the play involves a group of Yiddish writers rounded up by Stalin's secret police and imprisoned. Englander gets bogged down in exposition early on, establishing the identities of famed authors Vasily Korinsky (Chip Zien), Yevgeny Zunser (Ron Rifkin), and Moishe Bretzky (Daniel Oreskes), as well as creating a mystery around the play's title figure, young Pinchas Pelovitz (Noah Robbins), a complete unknown who has somehow also been abducted.

In his original short story, Englander managed to establish his characters with a few deft lines and descriptive phrases. And while much of the information remains the same in the play, the dialogue is leaden and seems pitched to create a feeling of tension that unfortunately never materializes.

The author fares better in the one scene that doesn't really have an equivalent in the short story: a Kafkaesque meeting between the Agent in Charge (a terrific Byron Jennings) and Korinsky, who fervently believes that his dedicated service to the Soviet government should spare him the fate of the others. Zien's arrogant posturing is overdone in other parts of the play, but the actor is quite grounded in this scene, particularly as Korinsky makes a fateful decision with irrevocable consequences. Rifkin endows Zunser with a quiet strength, while Oreskes is a solid presence as Bretzky. Robbins has a sweetness and vulnerability to his portrayal of Pinchas, and his delivery of the brief tale the boy composes in his head while imprisoned is immensely moving.

Englander memorializes his subjects while musing on the passing of the Yiddish culture that it seemed to signal. This is one of the strongest aspects of the celebrated author's fictional story, and one that thankfully remains intact in this sadly uneven production.