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Russian Transport

Erika Sheffer's play about a troubled Brooklyn family displays an impressive command for rich storytelling and dialogue.

By New York City
Sarah Steele, Janeane Garofalo, and
Raviv Ullman in Russian Transport
(© Monique Carboni)
Sarah Steele, Janeane Garofalo, and
Raviv Ullman in Russian Transport
(© Monique Carboni)
Playwright Erika Sheffer makes an impressive debut with Russian Transport, receiving its world premiere in a New Group production at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row. While the play may stumble in spots, it is impossible to dismiss Sheffer's command of storytelling and zestful, pungent dialogue.

Set in a cramped, somewhat run-down home in Sheepshead Bay (rendered in a detailed, but awkwardly conceived two-tier design by Derek McLane), the piece centers on a family of Russian immigrants struggling to get by and to put their past behind them, even as they struggle to assimilate to the American culture.

It's evident from the play's opening moments that all of this has taken its toll on the family as Diana (Janeane Garofalo) battles with her daughter Mira (Sarah Steele) over where the girl will sleep once Diana's brother Boris (Morgan Spector) has arrived from Russia and whether or not Diana should be allowed to apply to a travel abroad program for the coming summer.

Once Boris has arrived, audiences come to understand that familial tensions -- and secrets -- run deeper than could ever have been imagined. Patriarch Misha (Daniel Oreskes) displays a profound disdain under his jovial courteousness for Boris. And the family's 18-year-old son Alex (Raviv Ullman), still finishing high school, does little to suppress his resentment at having to work not only for the family's financially strapped car service business, but also contribute everything he earns from a job at a cell phone store to his parents.

Tensions only mount once Boris (whose rapid Americanization and good fortune are signaled by increasingly chic costumes provided by designer Ann Hould-Ward) has convinced Alex to earn a little money on the side for himself by doing a few errands for the older man. While Sheffer's ability to keep all of the plotlines coursing toward one inevitable end may sometimes falter, theatergoers will find themselves consistently intrigued by the work.

Under Scott Elliott's direction, the company handles the bilingual demands of the script, the Russian accents, and the way in which character must carefully reveal themselves and their true intents with varying levels of success. Garofalo, though sometimes thrown by the technical demands of the piece, delivers a passionate turn as matriarch Diana. Some of her finest work comes when she's playing off of Oreskes' portrayal of Misha, which deftly combines rage, helplessness, and intense patriarch love.

Steele's turn as Mira is sweet (though perhaps a bit too mature) and the sense of menacing joviality that courses through Spector's turn as Boris is undeniably fascinating. But Ullman ultimately steals the show as he cunningly imbues Alex with both a preternatural adult weariness and a teenager's exuberance and haughtiness to heartbreaking effect.


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