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In early August, on the sort of sun-soaked morning that makes New York seem a plausible place to summer, Nathan Englander sits in a Clinton Hill café and drinks an enormous iced decaf Americano, which he describes more than once as a sad beverage.
Englander quit proper coffee two years ago, but you'd never know it. He speaks loquaciously and at dizzying speeds—mouth, eyebrows, and hands all highly mobile—pausing only to critique his previous comments. As Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, observes: "Nathan can occasionally redefine 'high-strung.'"
Nor has the lack of caffeine compromised Englander's productivity. In February, he released his second short-story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. March saw his translations of the New American Haggadah and short stories by Etgar Keret. More recently, he has completed a new draft of his first play, The Twenty-Seventh Man, based on a story in his debut collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. It will premiere at the Public on November 7.
That a major figure in literary fiction should choose to write a play is a rare enough occurrence. (Even rarer is when they write good plays, and Englander's promises well.) But this instance is especially surprising because, until three years ago, Englander had hardly read or seen a play in more than 20 years.
He describes his childhood, amid an Orthodox Jewish community in 1970s Long Island, as "TV all day, TV all night" and a single visit from the Paper Bag Players. His yeshiva briefly staged musicals—his older sister appeared in Oliver!—but by the time Englander entered, the rabbis had determined that drama was a "devilish pursuit" and banned it.
Englander remembers a few months in junior high when his sister had a job at a TV station and would occasionally score him tickets to Broadway: I'm Not Rappaport, A Chorus Line, La Cage aux Folles. But the tickets soon dried up, and he more or less forgot the theater until three years ago, when his agent told him that Nora Ephron had optioned The Twenty-Seventh Man. In this short story, Ephron sensed a play she might produce. Until her death earlier this year, she guided Englander's adaptation.
The Twenty-Seventh Man derives from a passing remark made by a professor during Englander's junior year abroad in Israel, a mention of Stalin ordering the simultaneous execution of many prominent Yiddish writers. "It just upset me," Englander recalls. "These writers with the greatest stories of their lives to tell. Gone."
Although a book, Stalin's Secret Pogrom, airing trial transcripts and clandestine files has recently appeared, at the time that Englander first heard the tale, little documentation existed. So he invented a short story of four writers huddled together in a cell in the final days of their lives. Three of them are lauded authors, while the fourth is a young man, almost a boy, who has written poems, novels, play reviews, and histories, but never published a word.
There's much to interest a theatrical producer in this scenario, even one less astute than Ephron: the single set, the small number of actors, the revelation of a previously unknown atrocity, the sophistication and pathos that Englander reveals on each of the story's 21 pages. The piece also feels deeply personal, an intuition Englander confirms. At that time, working away alone in his room, he identified deeply with the unpublished young man. He needed to know, "Are you a writer, even if no one ever sees it?" He wrote and rewrote the story for six years.
If that process helped him become a writer, it didn't yet make him a playwright. Englander describes his original dramaturgical knowledge as nil: "no classes, no background, no reading." So he gave himself a crash course, with much initial emphasis on "crash."
He wrote the first draft in Word before Ephron nudged him toward Final Draft. He showed the three-hour-long first act to his mother, who said: "I love you, son. But even I will need to pee." (Englander jokes that the draft also featured 10,000 mounted horsemen and a dirigible.) Desperate to educate himself about the rigors and strictures of drama, he read play after play, a feat he proudly announced to Ephron, who replied, "Darling, you know they're meant to be seen." She bought him two tickets to August: Osage County. He went twice.
By the time Ephron passed the script along to Eustis, it had improved considerably. Yet Eustis told Englander, then on his way to a semester-long stay at the American Academy in Berlin, that while the ending was superb, 90 percent of what came before didn't merit it. "It was the most amazing note in terms of badass, roll-up-your-sleeves, we're-not-fucking-around," Englander recalls. Anxious to revise, he worked furiously, putting aside a novel and barely leaving his Berlin building for a week at a time. Once he returned to New York, Eustis and Barry Edelstein, who will direct the Public production, continued to push him toward more focused dramatic action.
In late July, New York Stage and Film presented a reading of the latest draft at Vassar College—black box, minimal lights, music stands, actors (including Ron Rifkin) in slacks and slip-ons. Englander watched most of it with the knuckles of his right hand pressed against his lips, his wife's shoulder pressing comfortingly into his. When the lights came up, many members of the audience, particularly the older ones, were in tears.