Written by Erika Sheffer
Directed by Scott Elliott
Erika Sheffer's playwriting debut, the New Group
's production of Russian Transport
(through March 24), opens on a slightly more abusive than normal Russian-American Sheepshead Bay household as a guest mattress self-inflates on a darkened stage. The inflated bed lies across the living room of Derek McLane's excellent two-floor set, signaling the gross inconvenience that the household's new guest will pose. Boris (Morgan Spector), just-arrived at his sister Diana's (Janeane Garofalo) house from Russia, takes her teen daughter's bedroom, forcing Mira (Sarah Steele) to sleep in the living room, where she's rudely awakened by her older brother Alex (Raviv Ullman). This turns out to be the smallest of the problems Boris's arrival causes.
As if by necessity—narratives about Russians in America tend naturally towards criminal activities, it seems—Boris quickly becomes embroiled in a human trafficking enterprise and recruits Alex as a driver. He also terrorizes Mira and sets his sister's already-faltering family on edge; Diana's husband Misha (Daniel Oreskes) runs an in-the-red car service company from the household's front room. This portrait of a family divided against itself in a time of economic duress has some stand-out scenes, and director Scott Elliott benefits from some strong performances: solemnly, subtly, Oreskes gives great texture to his unfortunately small role; Steele's teenage Mira is heartbreakingly vivid.
But for all the realism of its setting and story-telling, the story lacks a certain realness. Perhaps befitting its evocation of Russian literature, there seems to be no world beyond the palpably claustrophobic domestic space that the family inhabits. In a story as old as time, the arrival of a newcomer upsets the tense family's fragile truce—it was, by all indications, a fairly toxic environment to begin with—opening old wounds and exposing guarded secrets. There are very strong scenes, like a pair between Garofalo and Oreskes. But, save something of a twist ending, Russian Transport
takes the simplest route to get its characters exactly where we expect them to go.
(Photo: Monique Carboni)