What’s this? A thoughtful, well-written domestic drama with something original to say about immigrant families living by old world values in a new world culture? Pinch me! In her provocative debut drama, “Russian Transport,” Erika Sheffer draws her characters from the Russian Jewish community of Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay — not the sitcom pool. Taking a tip from Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge,” tyro scribe acknowledges the criminal underclass that operates in immigrant communities, presenting a constant threat to the stability of families like the one that comes vividly to life here.
Unless you’re working on a big stage, it’s impossible to design an upstairs/downstairs set that doesn’t put the audience’s collective neck in a brace. But while Derek McLane’s design looks cramped on the modest stage of the Acorn Theater, its crowded interior rooms communicate a lot about the family of Russian immigrants that has put down its roots in Sheepshead Bay. Like the fractured English spoken by the older characters in this family-in-crisis drama, the house they live in is crammed with the furnishings and treasures of two imperfectly blended cultures.
At first glance, the power dynamic appears to be no different from the one that drives countless other family plays written by wounded veterans of the eternal war between parents and children.
Mother Diana, a holy terror in Janeane Garofalo’s fiery (and quite funny) perf, rules this repressive household with a will of steel. Father Misha, big of voice and full of bluster in Daniel Oreskes’ strong perf, is a clumsy bear whose fierce growls are the last gasps of a beaten man. Sarah Steele manages to be both endearing and annoying as Mira, the too-smart-for-this-family adolescent daughter.
Under Scott Elliott’s assured helming, the relationships all feel natural and lived-in. But Raviv Ullman, making his noteworthy New York debut here, is especially sympathetic as son Alex, a high school senior who is growing up much too fast.
But this familiar domestic dynamic changes abruptly — and the play slips into darker territory — with the arrival of Diana’s younger brother, Boris, an aggressively sexy and scary individual in Morgan Spector’s forceful perf. The family elders may or may not know that the Russian relative they’ve taken to their bosom is a bona fide Russian gangster, come to America to open up a new market for his trap-and-trade business enterprise involving underage Russian girls. But Boris is no conventional villain, and it’s not his loaded revolver but his keen insight into human behavior that makes him such a dangerous presence in the house.
The larger and more daring point that Sheffer makes here is that crime is no stranger to heavily populated immigrant communities, but a fact of life. It’s a rare family indeed that doesn’t carry a debt with a loan shark or isn’t on friendly terms with the neighborhood dope dealer. So, even if the family succeeds in turning Boris out of the house, they may never be able to clean up the mess he left behind.