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A CurtainUp Review
Russian Transport

This is a family of noise. With the exception of Boris, they most often speak before they think. They are not measured in their anger, fear, humor or passion.
— A note by Erika Sheffer as an introduction to her dark drama about a Russian immigrant family in Sheepshead Bay whose struggles to achieve the American dream turns into a nightmare with the arrival of the sexy but malevolent Boris into their family circle.
Russian Transport
Morgan Spector
(Photo credit: Monique Carboni)
Erika Sheffer's debut play, Russian Transport, now at the New Group's Theater Row home on west 42nd Street reminded me a bit of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge. Both plays are about a working class family — Miller's family is Italian, Sheffer's is part of the Jewish immigrant community of Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay. There are some dark undercurrents swirling beneath the surface of both families' lives that turn into a full-fledged storm with the arrival of a relative from the old country.

Both Rudolpho, Miller's "submarine" (a once common term for illegal immigrants), and Sheffer's Boris are handsome hunks. It so happens that hunky Morgan Spector, Russian Transport's Boris also played Rudolpho in the last revival of Miller's play (review) . But that's where these plays part company. Rudolpho is a victim, Boris is the villain of Sheffer's piece.

And what a villain he turns out to be. His malevolence is deep rooted in his Russian past. His brother-in-law Misha (Daniel Oreskes) would have done well not to go along with his wife Diana's (Janeane Garofalo) wish to let her brother come to New York. Though Diana isn't evil, her pragmatism and aggressive hold on her children nevertheless makes her a secondary villain. Her willingness not ask questions about 18-year old Alex's (Raviv Ullman) extra contributions to the family's precarious financial situation is essentially well-intentioned, as is the favor she accepts from Boris, but her actions underscore the old cliche that "you can't be a little bit pregnant."

Since suspense is a critical element, I'll keep plot details to a minimum. The family is, as noted in the author's introductory note to her script, one "of noise" whose interactions tend to be hot and hasty rather than restrained. In short, they don't hesitate to express their feelings. The parents came to Brooklyn when Alex was still a toddler and around the time the Soviet Union came completely apart, and that note notwithstanding, there are things in the parents past that they never talk about. They are not highly educated professionals, like some of the earlier Russians allowed to emigrate to America, but strivers on a bumpy path to prosperity.

Fourteen-year-old Mira (Sarah Steele) is studious and likely to be the first member of the family to make it to college though she is not too tethered to her studies for some after school activities that elude her controlling mother. Alex, has less time for studies since, he's been enlisted to work as a driver in Misha's car service business and also has a job with Verizon.

The volatile if it's on your lung it's on your tongue family dynamic makes for some sharply ironic interchanges between the siblings and with their parents. Both kids are smitten with the tall, dark and handsome uncle's mysterious charm — until they've gotten caught up in his devious net.

It doesn't take long for Boris to take advantage of Diana's big sister affection to do her a Faustian favor that will impact ominously on everyone, most especially Alex. The Chekhovian prop that comes into play several times doesn't have to be fired to inflict a devastating wound on this family.

New Group founder Scott Elliott has directed Sheffer's drama with well-paced flair on a two-level set by Derek McLane that utilizes the Acorn Theater's wide stage to let us see the cramped home as well as the car service's office. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting takes us outside the house often enough to give us a glimpse into Boris's mysterious work is all about.

Mr. Elliot maintains the play's tension and draws animated, believable performances from the four-ember cast. Morgan Spector is charismatic yet scary as Boris. Raviv Ullman makes an impressive debut as Alex and Sarah Steele deftly handles three small roles in addition to that of Mira, the teen determined to escape her mother's "KGB" rule. As the parents who have been toughened by their pre-Brooklyn years, Janeane Garofalo, best known as a stand-up comic and small and large screen performer, is aptly abrasive and the always reliable Daniel Oreskes is fine as the overworked, overstressed Misha.

All the actors have, with the help of Dialect Coach Doug Paulson, mastered enough Russian phrases to lend authenticity to this story. Since I don't know any Russian, I can't comment on the accuracy of the accents. The dialogue, especially that by the heavily accented characters could stand clearer articulation, at least in the first act.

While there's nothing particularly Jewish about Sheffer's family, she does establish their ethnic affiliation with some deftly inserted dialogue; for example, a reference to a bat-mitzvah and Diana answering Mira complaint that it's not fair to make her give up her bedroom to the soon to arrive Boris with "Fair? Your grandmother was raped by Nazis. This is fair, this life? "

To go back to my initial comparison between Russian Transport and A View From the Bridge, Ms. Sheffer weakens an interesting and quite gripping story with an insufficiently developed, lazy ending with only the suddenly bathed in red stage to hint at what lies ahead.

While Arthur Miller was at times guilty of too much melodrama, he did end those melodramas with a conclusive bang. Sheffer, typical of many of her playwriting contemporaries, ends her play with a whimper rather than a really satisfying bang.

Russian Transport by Erika Sheffer
Directed by Scott Elliott
Cast: Janeane Garofalo (Diana), Daniel Oreskes (Misha), Morgan Spector (Boris), Sarah Steele (Mira),Raviv Ullman (Alex)
Set Design: Derek McLane
Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski
Costume Design: Ann Hould-Ward
Sound Design: Bart Fasbender
Dialect Coach: Doug Paulson
Fight Director: David Anzuelo
Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including intermission
The New Group at Acorn Theatre 410 West 42nd Street, between 9th & 10th Aves (212) 239-6200
From 1/17/12; opening 1/30/12; closing 3/24/12.
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday at 7:00 PM and Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8:00 PM. Matinees Saturday at 2:00 PM
Tickets: $60.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at January 27th press performance
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