Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Russian Transport

Sarah Steele, Janeane Garofalo
Photo: Monique Carboni
At the beginning of Erika Sheffer's intriguing new play Russian Transport, we meet a Russian family who has been living in Brooklyn since the older child, now 18 or so, was a baby. The parents have retained many Russian beliefs and values; the children are totally American. The mother (Janeane Garofalo) is gruff and domineering, even mean, but also quite funny at times. The father (Daniel Oreskes) is gentler, but he is distracted by money problems. The son, Alex (the excellent Raviv Ullman), is impatient, particularly with his sister, Mira, telling her flat-out that he thinks she is ugly. (Mira is played by Sarah Steele, who also plays a handful of other young women; she does an impressive job with all of them.)

In some ways, this could be the beginning of a perverse sitcom, but Sheffer has something a lot more serious in mind. What is the price of loyalty? How far would you go for a family member? Where do you draw the line? These are not sitcom questions.

The plot takes off when the mother's brother, the attractive, sexy, and somewhat menacing Boris, comes for a vist. He is supportive of Mira's desire to go to Florence (her mother is not); he offers Alex (suspiciously) high-paying work. His machinations cause rifts between family members.

The play could fall apart without a good Boris; luckily, Morgan Spector is completely convincing in his ability to charm, manipulate, and frighten people, sometimes switching modes on a dime. (Spector has everything that Chris Rock lacked in The Motherfucker With the Hat. With Spector in Rock's role, the show would have been significantly better.)

Sheffer's writing can be quite funny, and her characters are believable. The plot is compelling, and the story moves right along. I think, however, that the play would be better balanced if a glimmer of affection was shown between the two teenagers and if the mother displayed a bit of real softness.

Scott Elliott's direction could do more to support Sheffer's work. Due to accents and timing, the exposition can be difficult to follow. More importantly, perhaps the most significant scene in the show is a mess. A moment that the audience should feel as a slap in the face instead leads to "Huh, wait a second, does that mean that . . .?" The dialogue is there; the staging gets in the way.

Overall, Russian Transport is quite good. I'm looking forward to seeing more of Sheffer's work.

(press ticket; sixth row, audience right-ish)

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