In this family, they do what they have to do. Erika Sheffer’s Russian Transport is a skin-crawlingly believable dive into the twisted bonds of family, identity, lust, culture, reconciliation, and desperation. Diana and Misha, a Russian immigrant couple, and their family are hell-bent on making a new life. Theirs is a world of hard work, networking, and utter loyalty. So when Diana’s sexy and mysterious brother shows up to make his own go of it in America, how can they refuse him? As it turns out, nyet is not an option.
It’s not as if Boris showed up to make trouble—no, this family’s been in the deep for years, and just needed a little push. Unlike dramatic turn-keys before him, Boris takes particular delight in exercising his power to cultivate ruin, rather than cause it. It’s a special kind of betrayal: we the audience are just as excited for a visit from a beloved relative. We are just as taken with his strange, forbidden seductiveness. And we are just as repulsed when this person we thought we knew morphs before our eyes. Morgan Spector spins a yarn of tension so tight as to cause many breathless moments. His business and his family are, as it turns out, inextricable, and his presence causes a palpable shift onstage at every appearance. He is truly outstanding.
Boris takes aim at everyone, and a cast of talented actors is ready to take it. Janeane Garofalo abandons her very recognizable tone and delivery to play Diana, a wife, mother, and Russian immigrant hell-bent on making ends meet. She perhaps struggles the most with the heavy dialect, but intones even the shakiest moments with a physical awareness and drive that makes up for any dropped phrases.
Daniel Oreskes as Misha is a solid presence, bringing his character’s shame and strife into the fray with subtlety. Sarah Steele and Raviv Ullman as Alex and Mira are dual surprises- recent turns have shown them slightly shaky, but promising, but Transport perhaps provides the necessary fuel to challenge and shape these two into solid performers. Steele’s performance benefits in particular from some highly impactful double-casting.
It is one in a series of wise, economical choices by director Scott Elliott. He is clearly a fan of highly visual, slightly constructivist realism—as evidenced by The New Group’s earlier Burning and One Arm. He’s certainly consistent, and Transport is the most cogent marriage of material and vision of the three. Elliott’s heavy use of Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting design to direct focus around Derek McLane’s skeletal set is filmic, but also provides a clean, dynamic way of handling the play’s many crossfades and dual scenes. He has this one working like a well-oiled machine. His actors clearly know their place in the stage tableaux, and are smart enough to finish their visual moments, even with a crash-bang of an outburst happening simultaneously.
The play tracks well on its feet due to tight pacing and staging—Transport can get a little wordy, and frequently dips into Russian. It requires a strong sense of physicality and forward motion to not only make the unfamiliar dialogue clear, but also to ratchet the tension up to the necessary levels. Elliott sets these fuses, and (in the best way possible) it is exhausting to watch.