A modest apartment appointed with everyday Americana evokes normalcy in Russian Transport at Renaissance Theaterworks, running through Feb. 11. The reassuring coziness of family portraits, bric-a-brac and teen-magazine wall collages sets the stage for Erika Sheffer’s play about an established Russian-Jewish immigrant family in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay.
The play opens with a squabble between Diana (Elizabeth Ledo) and her 14-year-old daughter Mira (April Paul), who wants to travel to Florence, Italy, for an educational adventure. Diana adamantly opposes the trip, even if Mira raises funds for it. They banter about this and about whether Mira will abdicate her room for Diana’s brother, Boris, during his first visit to America. They soon exchange coarse words, setting a tone of incivility.
Domestic tension escalates as Mira’s brother, Alex (Max Pink), and their father, Misha (Reese Madigan), enter the fray. Everyone half-heartedly “makes nice” when Boris (Mark Puchinsky) shows up, as they toss back vodka and slap each others’ backs.
Meanwhile, pressure intensifies on the family’s car-service business to succeed, with father and son bearing the brunt. For the most part, business remains a man’s world here, with Diana apparently eschewing it and Mira not yet pressed into service. Nonetheless, Misha remains a shadowy, if hard-working figure and eventually plays second fiddle to the dashing Uncle Boris, compellingly portrayed by Puchinsky.
Russian Transport lives up to its billing as a “moral thriller,” bending a genre while grappling with complex relationships and profound themes. The first act ends with a line-blurring encounter between Mira and her uncle, who exudes both charm and disturbing bravado. Even as Mira is kept in the dark about the actions and intentions of those around her, she relentlessly asserts her curiosity. In the upstairs bedroom she has temporarily relinquished, the word “DREAM” is revealed when the door is closed—a subtle nod to adolescent aspiration and the American Dream this family is chasing. Jason Fassl’s multilevel set both contains the action and counterbalances it.
Laura Gordon’s direction deftly paces the suspense as unsettling truths are slowly revealed. Rapidly spewed dialogue, in both English and Russian, heightens the intrigue. Besides portraying Mira, Paul takes on other key cameo roles. Pink as style-conscious Alex alternates between bravado and acquiescence. Ledo delivers smart-alecky lines that lighten the mood, even as the drama becomes increasingly dark.
Without giving away plot lines, Russian Transport explores the lengths to which a family goes to make it in the New World. At one point, characters acknowledge the transactional nature of life in Russia, where every exchange is fraught with potential for exploitation. The play reflects the cynical society that the former Soviet Union had become and the fact that, after its dissolution in the 1990s, that dysfunction continued. Instead of ushering in a moral renaissance, apparently literally everything became up for grabs — even for some who eventually escape to other places.