In Nathan Englander’s intensely moving new play, “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” a bleak jail cell lit by a single light bulb provides the setting for an unlikely literary salon.
Here three lions of Russian Yiddish writing are imprisoned: Zunser, the greatest of them all; Korinsky, a linguistic master and devout party loyalist and, in a drunken stupor on the concrete floor, the bearish Bretzky, a poet with an acid wit.
The guard drags in a fourth, rolled up in a rug. “This one comes wrapped,” he smirks.
The prisoners unfurl Pelovits, a sickly young man whose first words constitute a demand: “A piece of paper! A pen!”
It’s 1952; Joseph Stalin has rounded up 26 writers and slated them for execution. Pelovits, the 27th, has written perhaps 20 novels and many poems, not a word of them published.
What is this nobody doing in such august company?
Adapted by the author from a story in his debut collection, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” the play is a series of dialogues among the men, with young Pelovits a stand-in for Englander himself. Pelovitz composes a story, if only in his head, as the inevitable looms.
It is Bretzky who understands what has happened, that Stalin, unable to blot the word God out of the Yiddish language, has come up with a different Final Solution.
“Hitler was busy trying to kill the Jewish body, but Stalin is smarter than that,” Bretzky says. “It’s too hard to wipe out every last Jew. There will always be another Yid growing somewhere like a weed. Stalin, you could already see then, had a better plan. He was going to kill the Jewish soul. Leave a people like emptied oysters, all the pearls pulled from inside.”
Staged with extreme subtlety if not a light hand by Barry Edelstein, “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” has the shortcomings of apprenticeship: Englander is not in complete control of the drama and some of the play’s 90 minutes can feel didactic. But few other young writers today possesses his phenomenal gift for character, and for unexpected twists of plot.
But as performed by a consummate company -- Noah Robbins as Pelovits, Chip Zien as Korinsky, Ron Rifkin as Zunser, Daniel Oreskes as Bretzky and Byron Jennings as the prison chief -- “The Twenty-Seventh Man” builds inexorably to its unforgettable conclusion.
“Did you like my story?” Pelovits asks. Zunser’s reply will break your heart even more than the shots shattering the dark.
The show’s faithfully adapted from the 1983 movie of the same name, itself based on a 1966 novel by the late radio personality Jean Shepherd. Shepherd (Dan Lauria) narrates the small-town Indiana fable.
We meet Ralphie Parker (the hyper-talented Johnny Rabe) in the exuberant opener, “It All Comes Down to Christmas,” which is followed by the lad’s melodious ode to the rifle.
The talented young composing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“Dogfight”) have written an appealing pop score that gives the featherweight narrative a hint of depth.
Rabe, who’s 12, is a charming triple-threat behind tortoise shell glasses. Several pint-size tap dancers are audience favorites, as are two Bill Berloni-trained bloodhounds who chase dad across the stage.
John Rando directs the show with zest while generally playing it safe. One welcome joke about where the Schwartz family eats Christmas dinner sets up an unfortunate number in which Chinese waiters sing Christmas songs with steep accents, a scene that may have seemed harmless in 1983 but is wince- inducing today. (Philip Boroff)
Through Dec. 30 at 205 W. 46th St. Information: +1-877-250- 2929 or http://achristmasstorythemusical.com. Rating: ***
The Signature Theatre opens its season of David Henry Hwang’s work with a terrific revival, staged by Leigh Silverman, of “Golden Child.” A curious young Chinese-American travels to Manila to interview his grandmother about the family history and, in particular, her parents’ transgressional conversion to Christianity. (Gerard)
Also at the Signature, a revival of August Wilson’s lyrical drama “The Piano Lesson.” Set in Pittsburgh in 1936, it’s about an upright piano whose intricate carvings have pitched the Charles family into a fierce battle over history, legend and legacy. Staged by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the production showcases a stellar ensemble and wonderful blues playing by Chuck Cooper. (Boroff)
At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-244-7529; http://www.signaturetheatre.org. Rating: ***1/2
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-So * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.