There are three, then four men in the cold cell where Stalin has put the Yiddish writers in "The Twenty-Seventh Man," Nathan Englander's deeply moving adaptation of his own short story. This is the cell for "latecomers," says the famous aging poet (played with elegant, aching compassion by Ron Rifkin), suggesting with almost droll wisdom that the rest are already imprisoned or worse.
This is the stage debut for Englander, author of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." And it is a major one. In just 100 minutes, he, director Barry Edelstein and six exquisitely individual actors create an entire lost world, a Yiddish literary scene in Russia that thrived, momentarily, until the '50s crackdown on what was demonized as the "Jewish conspiracy in the arts."
Chip Zien, long treasured as a character actor in musicals, is a revelation as the defiant party loyalist, the last to grasp the reality, still puffed up with his grandiosity and his Lenin lapel pin. Daniel Orestes has a bearish comfort as the writer who likes his drink and women, but not more than his art.
The 27th man, the last captured, is a curiosity, a skinny unpublished young man (played with devastating simplicity by Noah Robbins), who ultimately brings meaning to the others. Englander's dialogue is a bit heavy-handed at first, but tunnels relentlessly into something inevitable that's never predictable.
WHAT "The Twenty-Seventh Man"
WHERE Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.
INFO $75-$85; 212-967- 7555; publictheater.org
BOTTOM LINE Deeply moving