By Keith Staskiewicz
November 18, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST
Joan Marcus

In 1952, 13 Jewish citizens of the Soviet Union were executed after years of imprisonment, coercion, and show trials. Among them were a number of Yiddish writers. In The Twenty-Seventh Man, playing through Dec. 9 at Off Broadway’s Public Theater, writer Nathan Englander fictionalizes this event, adding in shades of the abstract terror and persecution of Darkness at Noon to create a truly powerful examination of the slow suffocation of words, culture, and, ultimately, truth that occurs under despotic rule.

Four individuals share a small cell, a claustrophobic cube of a stage. Three of them are well-known men of letters: Korinsky (Chip Zien), the ever-faithful Party pet, Bretzky (Daniel Oreskes), an ursine-looking poet of gluttonous appetites, and Zunser (Ron Rifkin), perhaps the most talented of them, but distanced from his work by a pen name and retirement. The final captive (Noah Robbins) — No. 27, when counting those that came before — isn’t so much a man as a boy, a young literary hermit who is only a writer in that he has written, but never published. His inexplicable presence throws the small cell into disarray.

What these men face isn’t something as simple or even as empowering as death, but rather total existential annihilation. A Soviet agent (Byron Jennings), in a tense confrontation with Korinsky that bifurcates the 90-minute play, threatens ”erasure.” It will be as if these men had never lived, their language was never practiced, and their deaths nothing more than a check mark in some apparatchik’s notebook. Englander, adapting his own short story of the same name for the stage, allows his characters to come to their own terms with their fates, both individually and collectively, as they discuss what value art could possibly hold in a state where artists’ mouths are clamped shut and their audience’s ears muffled.

Director Barry Edelstein uses the relatively tiny set well, shuffling the blocking enough to ward off stagnancy without ever letting the actors clutter. The acting is top-notch, particularly from Zien, whose character cannot fathom what little effect his truth-telling has on dislodging the lies that have crystallized around them. It’s an impervious and diabolical machinery, one in which even the perpetrators appear to be stuck unhappily in their roles. At one point, Zunser, frustrated, cries out his wish to make the guilty acknowledge their guilt, to put the blood back on their hands. Of course, it won’t happen in his lifetime. Thought, while powerful, can be a slow-acting adversary. But though it may take years, eventually it’s possible that a play like this will come along to tally the accounts. A?


Opening date: Nov. 18, 2012; lead performers: Happy Anderson, Byron Jennings, Daniel Oreskes, Ron Rifkin, Noah Robbins, Chip Zien; writer: Nathan Englander; director: Barry Edelstein; genre: drama