By Charlene Baldridge
Stunned and amazed; that seemed to be the tenor of audience comments following the Feb. 21 West Coast premiere production of Nathan Englander’s “The Twenty-seventh Man” at the Old Globe’s White Theatre.
Based upon Englander’s short story, it continues in an extended run through March 22. As he did in New York, Barry Edelstein, now the Globe’s artistic director, stages the work, reimagining it in the round upon Michael McGarty’s surprising set. This is the work’s first production since its premiere at the Public Theatre in 2012.
The play concerns a little-known bit of history (here slightly fictionalized for dramatic clarity) that took place behind the Iron Curtain. It is called “The Night of the Murdered Poets,” little known because it did not come to light until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. In 1952, twenty-six celebrated Yiddish writers were rounded up by Joseph Stalin and summarily executed.
“The Twenty-seventh Man” takes place in a prison cell where three of the detainees (Robert Dorfman as Vasily Korinsky, Hal Linden as Yevgeny Zunser, and Ron Orbach as Moishe Bretzky) discuss their arrests. They are joined by a 27th man, the uncelebrated, unpublished Pinchas Pelovits (Eli Gelb), who represents the future that is destroyed by the purge.
Each deals with a separate reality as well as a Guard (Lowell Byers). Korinsky, who still believes in a benevolent Stalin, also deals with the Agent in Charge (James Shanklin), who serves him tea in an office that seems to materialize from thin air.
Needless to say, after all the words are said, all the dreams are divulged, the denouement is not a happy one, but one that brings home the fact that writers are the bane of totalitarianism. Anyone who takes up the pen is courageous, the purges and persecutions continue worldwide and regimes continue to obfuscate their real purposes.
In fact, McClatchy news reported the same day as the experience of Englander’s play that a Russian newspaper claims that an official government strategy document outlines the invasion of Ukraine prepared weeks before the Ukrainian government’s collapse.
Impressively, young Gelb holds his own among the illustrious company of esteemed actors whose credits began long before his birth. To many the name Hal Linden is synonymous with the television series “Barney Miller,” though if that is one’s only association, one is sadly bereft. Dorfman, though lesser known, has an equally impressive array of credits coast to coast. An on stage giant, the impressively credentialed Orbach exudes charm as well as gravitas.
Edelstein is responsible for attracting such an assemblage. His staging of this important work, truly a wake up call for us all, is impeccable.
Costume designer Katherine Roth underscores the message by garbing the elder detainees as if they were arrested hours ago, the press still in their suits, and the shine still on their shoes. The imminent tragedy is also upheld by Russell H. Champa’s lighting, Darron L. West’s sound, and Brian Byrnes fight direction.
We walk out into the freedom we take for granted, perhaps unaware of the Globe program’s names and photos of writers imprisoned in Iran, China, Cameroon and Syria, a mere four of 900 currently serving time. According to PEN’s 2014 list.
— Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. Her book “San Diego, Jewel of the California Coast” (Northland Publishing) is currently available in bookstores. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.