About halfway through last night’s Selected Shorts event at Symphony Space, Nora Ephron turned to the audience in only half feigned frustration and asked, “Does ANYONE know when he decided to become a writer?”
The “he” in question was Nathan Englander, and it turns out open-ended questions aren’t his thing. While he may be a master of the written word, when it came to his oratorical skills he was the first to admit his flaws: “All my stories take nine hours. If you ask me what time it is, I’ll start with my birth.” When Ephron asked Englander if he identified as a Jewish writer, Englander mused aloud, “It’s not like anyone asked John Updike, ‘How has being Christian affected your breakfast?’” When she asked him about his “first bacon,” he mumbled something about ham and airplanes, ending by explaining, “My friends who have stopped being religious are much better at it than me. I’m basically a deeply religious person trying to be an atheist.”
The evening was anchored by a discussion of the transformation of one of Englander’s first short stories, “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” into a play set to premiere at the Public Theater in November. Ephron read the story in 1999, thought it would be great on the stage, and called Englander’s agent to set up a meeting. They had breakfast at Amsterdam Avenue smoked fish joint Barney Greengrass (“to establish my Jew cred,” Ephron said) and she effectively became his mentor. Englander was excited about the idea, but wanted to finish his novel first. That was more than 10 years ago.
Englander’s story takes place in Soviet Russia, where the 26 greatest Yiddish writers have been rounded up to be killed. We meet three of these writers and the 27th, who maybe shouldn’t be there, as they are gathered and placed in the same small cell. Michael Stuhlbarg (who has his own “Jew cred” from A Serious Man) gave a mesmerizing reading that offered a glimpse into how fitting this story is for the stage and had the audience wondering why one actor can’t play all the roles.
The laughs came when, in a discussion after the story, Englander claimed he was a fifth-generation American, only to have Ephron explain that you only start counting with the generation born in the country. Still, as a fourth-generation American, Englander dubbed his family “Mayflower Jews,” lamenting that they really should be richer, all things considered.
Selected Shorts: Nathan Englander and Nora Ephron [Symphony Space]