(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
I might have liked Nathan Englander's adaptation of his own short story, now in previews at the Public Theater, better if I had not read the story when it first appeared. In it, we meet four Jewish writers in a Russian jail. As part of Stalin's purge of Jewish intellectuals, 27 Yiddish writers have been rounded up and imprisoned. All are established authors except for one innocent young man who writes but has never been published. His inclusion, the apparent result of a bureaucratic error, must somehow be justified by the prison head. Yevgeny Zunser (Ron Rifkin) is a very old writer, once revered, now neglected. Moishe Bretzky (Daniel Oreskes) is an alcoholic sensualist who voluntarily gave up the chance to live abroad. Vasily Korinsky (Chip Zien) has been Stalin's loyal toady and thinks that will protect him. Pinchas Pelovits (Noah Robbins) is the young innocent whose greatest joy is to write something every day. Byron Jennings plays the "agent in charge" and Happy Anderson is a guard. The older writers bicker about their literary reputations while Pinchas, lacking pen and paper, commits to memory his final story and recites it for his cellmates. For me, the tale was far more powerful on the page than on the stage. Somehow the characters seemed less vivid in the flesh than they were in my imagination. The unevenness of the acting is a problem. Rifkin and Zien are very good, Oreskes and Jennings are alright, but Robbins is woefully inadequate in the difficult role of Pinchas. The simple sets by Michael McCarty are effective. With one exception, Katherine Roth's costumes are fine: Bretzky does not look nearly unkempt enough. Barry Edelstein's direction is unobtrusive. I suspect that the play will work better for those unfamiliar with the story. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes without intermission.