Theater Review: The Twenty-Seventh Man

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“Just behind The Twenty Seventh Man stands one of the darkest but least-known episodes of twentieth century Jewish History. “The Night Of The Murdered Poets” was the last of Stalin’s brutal purges, conducted with his customary ruthlessness months before his death….In 1952, a group of Soviet Jewish intellectuals were summarily executed. Among them were a number of the greatest poets, novelists, playwrights, and journalists ever to work in the Yiddish language.”

Playbill, The Twenty Seventh Man

My girlfriend saw the Playbill, and the subject of the play, first on the subway heading down. She was having a hard time believing that this was a play about the crimes of Stalin in a downtown liberal New York theater.

Her father—a journalist– is both Jewish, and a staunch anti-communist. This, she had told me, has been a mix met with derision and condescension, consistently, for as far back as she can remember.

The Public Theater is at 425 Lafayette—a starkly majestic ex-library rescued from demolition by Joseph Papp in ’67, when he opened it with a production of “Hair”. When we enter, we feel a very intimate spacial architecture between stage and audience.

The curtain opens to a stark set. We see three men. A naked bulb in the two-foot-thick ceiling switches on loudly, from an unseen hand. We are listening in on a
conversation in a jail cell. The prisoners are three, soon to be four.

Writing is their crime. Writing, and of course, being Jewish. Stalin’s establishment of not only a Jewish republic, but Jewish cultural centers, his relatively rapid recognition of Israel, were all so much smokescreen. The play is a large little thing. A flashlight into a silenced, darkened room in our collective consciousness.

This is a light and breezy little production like Pema Chodron is an Olympic Pole-vaulter. In a society where we still see Che Guevara tee shirts peddled by Urban Outfitters, where communism often continues to be viewed through an inappropriately poetic lens, this play is an affront. Cheeky premise. Surely good old Joe, who after all defeated Hitler, wasn’t into killing Jews.

He was, when he perceived them as a threat, and as we know, Stalin was pretty touchy like that.

Experiencing the play, the incarceration, the doom, is an
unapologetic sledgehammer to the chest. And really, what could be more appropriate, to gird us for this season’s beatings? Because this play is what happened. We face what has happened to us squarely, or we suffer a small death.

Alice Miller said that genuine forgiveness does not deny anger, but faces it head-on. I am angry. We are told that to be happy, we must forgive everyone, forgive everything. So where do we find forgiveness: what, Stalin was an abused child? Are there objectively unforgivable actions? If there are, are we absolved from the imperative to forgive?

American Heritage puts it back in our lap by defining “unforgivable” as:

“Of or relating to an act or situation that one cannot or will not forgive: unforgivable behavior.”

Well of course yes but does that define unforgivable? Not by a mile. Macmillan Dictionary offers: “extremely bad and impossible to forgive.” That’s better. Moral calculus and action mapping are made easy today. There’s an ethical flexibility inherent in clickable definition searches.

Tens of millions were murdered under Stalin,
so why are we in this little jail cell, concerning ourselves with a handful of Jewish artists? Are we letting them represent say a million people per cast member? Are we discovering compassion for genocide through a microcosmic view? Or are we simply bearing witness to an unbelievably difficult story?

The young writer Pelovits, played brilliantly by Noah Robbins, enters rolled up in a carpet. We see immediately after he is unrolled by his new cellmates that somewhere in the movement, he has managed to wrap us, unaware, around his finger. He is the innocent. We are all his.

I was in the towers on the evening of September 10, 2011. After they fell, I went down to the site, through the barriers, and looked. Everyone was impossibly kind. Someone handed me a dust mask. I remarked on the gentle quality of the gathered, scattered people’s quiet to a friend, and was told that “It happens when there is a sacrifice of innocence.”

The innocent in this play, Pelovits, has the hands and soul of a poet. He knows each man’s writing, and the dialogue, the critiques, are priceless. There is a brand of intellectual wit, quintessentially Jewish, that Nathan Englander plays like a fiddler on the earth. Pelovis writes daily, has numerous novels under his belt, and has never been published. As it
dawns on him that he will indeed die here, he chews on that: “Not a word into the world. Not a word into the world.” We feel his sorrow, about as welcome as a wet dog against a bare leg.

In the course of the play, Pelovits writes a story. His main character wakes up to realize that there is no sun.

His story just gets better from there. The story is the suddenly kind people downtown on September 12. It is the proverbial lilac’s fragrance from the boot heel’s uncompromising crunch. It is love in the face of impermanence. The boy and the creative act are life’s answer to cruelty.

At the conclusion, we are devastated. There is this
enormous relief that we are no longer in the play’s high- tension state. A hopelessness and sadness at the death of not mere living beings. These writers and poets are the repository of Yiddish culture but beyond that, light-keepers.

Emptiness enters as the actors exit.
Emptiness at having witnessed first hand the cruelty, the horrible,
dehumanizing system that was life and death under Stalin. We had been drained to the point of being ready for oxygen. In the down box out of there, we share with fellow riders, breaking elevator code naturally because we have been through deep pain together.

“Are you ok? You looked devastated,” a woman asked my love.
“Yes, I am alright. That was. Devastating.”
“Yes, it was. Wasn’t it?”

This between strangers in the East Village.

We do what is given to us as our healing action. Do I dare quote Barry Farber’s synopsis of the Jewish Holiday? “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.”

A fruitless search for Dojo yields a Middle Eastern spot called Khyber Pass. The lentils are right and the Giants are handing the Packers their collective asses. The only redistribution of wealth in this picture is through freely-given commerce.

We circle it, but keep coming back to what a big jerk Stalin was. No. No, the enemy of my enemy is not my friend. That is a lie. A real whopper. We marvel at how readily accepted lies often are.

In the 14th street subway a guitarist played softly in a minor key. I took his photo, he chastised me.

“I’m not out here trying to be somebody. We’re all somebody.” was his opening statement It went on. He was disturbed. My city. We are products of our environment. The dirty gum mosaic concrete carpet created him. He was a living throat, New York used him to expectorate the flowing, haunting string of notes.

And to make it so, he had to be disturbed. Stranded. The gift of the music reluctantly produced. It had to be wrung from him unwilling, by giant unseen hands. Unforgivably beautiful.

At home, in the dark, we answered Stalin. Will you give me sanctuary? Will you be alive with me, while we can? Will you save me from this, right now? I held her face for dear life.

Gibran said that we can only contain joy in proportion to how deeply pain has carved into our being. When millions are murdered at the whim of one, is all human life rendered more sacred by some invisible balance feat?

The play was without question life-giving. Alice is somehow right, as is Kahlil. I refuse to blind myself to the unseemly. I am certain that in every moment of shadow, there is unseen light.

—Karl Saliter

The Twenty-Seventh Man runs until December 9.

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