nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
January 28, 2012
Erika Sheffer develops rich, idiosyncratic people in her new compelling drama, Russian Transport. Each carries his or her weight in the unfolding story of a noisy, irreverent immigrant family. Like so many, this family of four is poor and ambitious, smart and confident. They are not afraid of work, and they save. They are also very funny. The difference is in the details, and Sheffer’s characters are rich in particulars.
One of the particulars driving the strong matriarch, Diana, is her philosophy that the end justifies the means. The end, in this case, is money. It is one reason she has no respect for her husband, Misha, who runs a failing car service from an office in their house, and holds her entrepreneurial-minded brother Boris in very high esteem. She is ruthless in her grip on family life, and she keeps tight tabs on her two teens, Mira and Alex, as she eagerly awaits the arrival of Boris from Russia. When Boris arrives, the catalyst for change is securely in place.
Initially, it might seem that members of this family hold no regard for one another. They elbow their way through what feels like a cramped living room, designed in thoughtful detail by Derek McLane. When they come together, it is at a small kitchen table, keeping them a little closer than is graciously comfortable. And, then they push. In one scene, Misha is pouring drinks to welcome Boris. Diana asks Mira, “Mira, watchu want?”
“Okay so a little vodka-one-sip—you have to have.”
Her father replies, “Drink! You what-fourteen—You-drink! When we was fourteen, we need new liver! We pull out from throat—Squeeze like sponge-Swallow-use again!” The pushing and bullying is their form of affection.
The cast is wonderful in capturing the contradictions built into their roles. Janeane Garofalo's Diana is despotic in her demands, but clearly concerned about her kids. Daniel Oreskes delivers a world-weary Misha, who finally gathers enough gumption to throw his son out of the house; Sarah Steele as Mira is fresh, bright, and coy; later, Steele harbors Mira’s dark secret through silence and by altering her posture. Raviv Ullman starts as a cocky, seemingly independent Alex, and later demonstrates sobering fear as the real world closes in on him. The two teens work off one another nicely, and depict a recognizably prickly sibling relationship. Morgan Spector as Boris offers the calm self-confidence that comes from knowing he holds all the cards and doesn’t care where they fall.
Under the skillful direction of Scott Elliott, the play pops with pace. The characters talk fast, mingling Russian with English, sometimes translating sometimes not, always cursing and mostly before they’ve even heard what is said; and it feels as if they are in perpetual motion—coming, going, pressed to be some place else. The pressure is palpable in Act I. We feel it when Boris charms his way into Alex’s life, and then into Mira’s. The change in the characters over the course of the play is visible in their postures and their introspection. At the end, it is clear their lives have been altered forever. The impact packs an emotional wallop, shoving any shortcomings to the sidelines.
Russian Transport requires careful listening because the pace is fast and there is natural overlapping dialogue. It would not be difficult to miss a plot point. That would be a shame since this off-Broadway debut is both powerful and thought-provoking.