On his Tumblr, novelist and short-story writer Nathan Englander calls himself an “accidental playwright.” The fruit of that accident is the new play, The Twenty-Seventh Man, Englander’s first foray into writing for the stage. Owing to a youth spent at a yeshiva where theater was considered a “devilish pursuit,” the author had barely even seen or read many plays before legendary writer Nora Ephron encouraged him to try his hand at writing one. Englander gave himself a crash course, and The Twenty-Seventh Man is now in the midst of an extended run at New York’s Public Theater.
The play—an adaptation of his short story of the same title—is based on the tragic event known as The Night of the Murdered Poets, Stalin’s 1952 roundup and execution of the Soviet Union’s remaining Yiddish writers. Englander has a gift for breathing color into dark and heavy stories, and while playwriting isn’t his most practiced medium, and while The Twenty-Seventh Man is set in a dreary prison cell, this play is no exception. These writers were killed “without their last story being told,” Englander told one interviewer. “Somebody should write them a story.” And so he did it himself—with heart, humor, and vitality.