More than most authors these days, Nathan Englander struggles to balance his considerable tools of literary craft with his restless mind. In everything I read or see from him, his ideas fight with his characters instead of creating a healthy symbiosis. I felt this way about much of his most recent collection, What We Talk about When We Talk About Anne Frank. In those stories, the characters feel alive, but in servitude to the master, to Englander himself and his desire to use them to raise questions and to espouse opinions (How do people use their tradition to hurt other people?) The most recent iteration of this tension comes to us through a new medium for Englander: theater. Englander, writing his first play, now on stage at the newly renovated and gorgeous Public Theater, has taken the opening story “The Twenty-Seventh Man” from his first collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, and has adapted it for the theater.
“The Twenty-Seventh Man” tells a simple tale, a fictionalized version of an historical event. Stalin has rounded up the most prominent Jewish Yiddish writers in the country for execution, all 26 of them. Amongst the group are rivals, friends, enemies. Some of the writers are staunch devotees of Stalin and the party while others engage in slightly subversive writing. Yet, their fate is sealed with the arrival of the strange 27th man, a teenager rather, who inexplicably shows up amongst these legendary writers. The guards break up the larger unwieldy group into smaller groups of 3 and 4 and we focus on a prison room of 3 of the brightest luminaries of the Yiddish language: Bretzky – a drunken bear of a poet with much literary success, Korinsky, a writer of great craft and acclaim, but one beholden to the political delusions of Stalin, and Zunser the wise, a living legend. The prisoners spend much of the time trying to figure out the cause for their imprisonment, but most importantly, the investigate the possible reasons that this young man could be placed with these important artists.
While it arises that Pinchas Pelovitz writes prolifically and displays eidetic memory, he never published a single word, rather, they all assume, his name must have travelled to the irrational Stalin on the whispers of the wind. All of these writers are executed without a defense, a trial, without basic rights and without any human decency. The nature of their death matters less than the nature of the manner they cope, or attempt to cope and explain their lives to one either before the moment of execution. In these conversations worthy of a literary salon, we find Englander exploring almost too much: The nature of loyalty, the relationship of art and politics, of art and morality, the burden and pleasures of history, the nature of courage and cowardice, the facile divide between fiction and reality, and on top of it all, the power and lack thereof of writing to comfort and sustain.
Pelovits treasures the opportunity, despite the circumstances, to converse with his heroes, but its Pelovits who redeems their moment of death. In an arresting scene, unsparing in its portrayal of the execution, the four inmates stare at the crowd as if ready to bow, and schmooze as they await their death. Pinchas asks to tell the story he’s been writing in his head and they all oblige. He tells the story of a religious man who awakes to think himself dead because the dawn does not come. He seeks the advice of his local Rabbi, only to alert the Rabbi that both of them must be dead. The Rabbi, instead of crying, instead of lamenting his situation celebrates the heaven they find themselves in because he now can just sit and study Talmud for the rest of his life.
The play works as a sort of throwaway effort: there are few missteps from the director and the most of the actors give passionate performances, the setting frighteningly captures the claustrophobia of prison, yet all of this emerges as empty and bit a purposeless. Furthermore, the play pales in comparison to the power of the short story. This stems less from the challenges of adaptation and more from the nature of the short story. The story in print succeeds because the characters in it do not. They are not meant to be full and round characters, but stand-ins for the different generations of Jewish writers. Pelovits, as part of an actual conventional narrative makes little sense. He does not fit into any sort of coherent narrative, and in the play comes off as a convenient, simplistic narrative tool. In the short story though, in which Englander cares little about plot or characterization and more about making a sort of opening statement in his foray into the Jewish tradition, there Pelovits fits as a stand-in for Englander himself. Pelovits, the unpublished author, dies with dignity along with the rest of the Jewish tradition. That in of itself is a powerful and enigmatic statement of a young Jewish writer well-versed in a dying tradition.
However, all of this fails as Englander attempts to take an experimental, idea based piece of fiction and turn it into a cohesive and coherent fully formed narrative. Pelovits, despite Englander’s insistence, just does not make sense in the story. The rest of the writers who before served as symbols now emerge as flat. The wise Zunser remains wise and kind, the glutton Bretzky persists in his jokes and darkness, and Korinsky, the avowed nationalist changes, but not in any believable manner. Even with all of Englander’s attempt to take this manifesto like story and turn into it a narrative, he ultimately fails largely because, as a conventional story, it treads on too many cliches.
The only true revelation in the play is the acting of the young Pinchas Pelovits (played by Noah Robbins). It remains uncertain who chose to play this character as mildly autistic, but it works, in fact it provides a fascinating turn. In general, whether it is politically correct or not, autism provides an interesting narrative tool. Because the popular culture version of autism sees the characters as wholly unable to recognize emotions it requires and excuses very forward genuineness and sincerity. If one of the characters uses sarcasm, or any sort of irony, we assume it will go over the head of an autistic person. Therefore, the writer, director and character can engage in very straightforward conversation to accommodate the autistic character. Conversely, when the autistic person attempts to express thoughts, feelings and emotions they do so in a manner that disregards the feelings of other people. They can say what others cannot. They can say, without irony, or without worry of correctness or sensitivity, we are all going to die, without flinching. Pinchas the character in the play find himself somewhere in the middle of the autistic spectrum and therefore some of the most arresting and humorous moments.
If this all sounds impolite or inappropriate, I don’t deign to discuss actual experiences of those with autism, but rather how we choose to portray autism in culture. Think of the TV shows Parenthood, or Alphas, or in literature, The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night Time. Not to say that they opt for autistic characters solely for the purpose of narrative range, but it cannot be denied that an autistic character adds to their artistic arsenal. Past this though, the play largely traded in well tread and now cliched territory, breathing nothing in the way of new life into very old material.
I find it hard to see a play or read a book about the prisoner experience in Stalinist Russia without thinking of the inimitable Darkness at Noon. Most of Englander’s play takes place inside a spare cement cell, though one extended scene takes place in the office of the head agent who wants Kolinsky, the patriotic writer, to turn on his friends. The scene does capture the absurdity of these interrogations, but does so in a way that feels like a dirty, tattered lithograph of the scenes from Darkness At Noon. To judge a book by its predecessors is often unfair, but also inevitable.
In this vein, Englander does strike numerous notes that are pretty, funny, and moving, but so much of the play feels recycled. The beginning of the play sees the three famous writers exchanging barbs, sarcasm, and that sense of Jewish wisdom which we assume entails resignation to the despair of life, but laughs all the while. They know of their imminent demise but they still take the time to make some pretty standard Jewish Jokes:
ZUNSER: You spoke first. How to know to address me in Yiddish?
KORINSKY You? Oh, my. Really? A face couldn’t be any more kosher if it was made of gefilte fish and had a herring poking out of each eye. I’ve never seen such a Jew in my life.
Copying these lines makes think of that stereotypical grandfather who elbows you a bit too hard to make sure you got the joke. We get the joke. This sort of recycled tone works better in the short story because it intends to recycle for the sake of raising the question of what it means to continue in the line of Jewish authors, but here, as part of the narrative, it runs dry as you can only take so many sentences that end with that Yiddish inflection of the voice rising in question form. In the short story, the cliches serve a purpose: they connect Englander to a tradition he hopes to enter, but in the play they just feel like cliches. Like with all of Englander’s work, no one can deny his mastery of craft. The can write plays and stories, but I’m still waiting for that work in which he melds his restless ideas with his controlled craft, in which he writes something urgent.