Erika Sheffer’s Russian Transport doesn’t quite know what kind of play it wants to be. It begins by straddling the line between comedy and tragedy, setting up jokes that aren’t especially funny and scenarios that are dramatically ambiguous. But the ambiguity feels as if it comes from an unsure or incomplete script, not one that has deliberately employed this technique to great effect.
The play concerns a Russian Jewish immigrant family, headed by overbearing mother Diana (Janeane Garofalo) and meek father Misha (Daniel Oreskes), whose household is quickly upset with the arrival of Diana’s brother Boris (Morgan Spector). Boris is an ex-convict who has come to America to work in a sex trafficking ring and manages to get his nephew, Alex (Raviv Ullman), to drive his girls from the airport to an unmentioned location in New Jersey. Meanwhile, his niece Mira (Sarah Steele) struggles with a budding sexuality and an unsympathetic puberty; pockmarked and insecure, she is quickly attracted to and terrified by Boris. Ever the avuncular figure, he exploits this weakness to earn her uncertain loyalty.
In order to reel its audience in, to get us to identify with these characters, Russian Transport relies on a series of stock Jewish parent jokes: Mira complains that life isn’t fair, and Diana snaps, “Fair? Your grandmother was raped by Nazis. This is fair, this life?” Later, when she arrives home hours late, her mother reprimands her with, “Next time you decide something, you send me a text, you call me—I have blood pressure, you understand?” These moments fail partly because they’re old territory, but mostly because they feel inauthentic; the my-parents-are-neurotic trope is employed as a shortcut, so we know these characters are Jews, but the combination of their tired rendering and Ms. Garofalo’s wavering accent is vaguely insulting, as if an unknowing outsider is trying to play Jewish by mocking someone else’s family.
After this rough start, the play can never regain its balance. Russian Transport attempts to use comedy as a foil for its tragedy, but when the comedy is false and unfunny, everything in the play begins to crumble. Ms. Sheffer has written some genuinely good scenes—Ms. Steele, for example, plays all the duped “models” just off the plane from Russia, forcing Alex to watch a series of naïve girls gushing about their future careers just before they will be exploited for a sexuality they don’t even understand yet. There is also a nice amount of tension between Boris and Mira, their relationship always hovering right above the incestuous. But the cookie cutter stereotypes that Ms. Sheffer opens with have ruined the whole show. By the time we reach her more powerful moments, we don’t believe them, however much we may want to.
The production can also boast several excellent performances. Mr. Ullman is astonishingly comfortable with his role, and his transformation from an arrogant teen pretending not to care to one who is genuinely devastated by what he has become is handled with great subtlety. Ms. Steele, while more or less playing the same part she did in Please Give, is nonetheless well cast. But most impressive is Mr. Spector, a tall, slim, and unsettlingly calm figure who always sports a coy grin that gives just enough indication of the menace ready to spring to the surface at any moment; he is able to let everyone in the room know how much of a shit he is and still get what he wants out of any situation.
Russian Transport is an unfortunate failure. There is a great deal of talent onstage and a hint of talent in the writing—we only wish the play had been reworked to be worthy of both.
Russian Transport runs through March 24th at the Acorn Theatre. 410 W. 42nd Street New York, NY.