Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company has opened its season with “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” adapted by Nathan Englander from his own short story, based on Stalin’s historic purge of Jewish writers in 1952.
Four men await their grim fate in a jail cell. Korinsky (Gabriel Murphy) is a Stalin loyalist who insists a mistake has been made. Bretzky (Jôher Coleman) rises from a drunken stupor and mocks his colleague. The crime, he reminds Korinsky, isn’t political subversion. They are in this cell for one reason only — they are Jews. The wise elder Zunser (Michael Kissin) sits on a bench and counsels patience and acceptance.
A fourth man is brought in, bundled in a rug, and immediately asks his cellmates for “a pen, a piece of paper.” Young Pinchas Pelovits (Michael Torsch) has never been published but wants desperately to be considered a voice of Yiddish culture. Despite the circumstances, he is thrilled to be thrown in with writers who have been his heroes to varying degrees.
Englander’s play runs itself in circles, searching for drama. His characters chew over personality differences and puff up in histrionic perorations. There is something very real at stake — Stalin’s denunciation of Yiddish culture — and Bretzky notes that while Hitler killed the Jewish body, Stalin wanted to crush its soul. The written story, however, makes that point more plainly and poignantly than a cramped drama.
Kurt Schweickhardt’s production cannot animate the story and the whole affair feels lifeless, despite some overheated acting.
7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thu., 8 p.m. Sat., 1 p.m. Sun. Ends Nov. 8 • Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul • $20-$32 • 651-647-4315 or mnjewishtheatre.org