by Erika Sheffer
Directed by Scott Elliott
A Production of The New Group
Theatre Row

Reviewed by David Spencer

Erika Sheffer's Russian Transport, we're treated, if that's the word, to a family of first- and second-generation Russians (adults and kids respectively) trying to scrape by in "Little Odessa", the middle and working class Russian section of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. Mother Diana (Janeane Garafolo) is a take-no-shit realist who isn't above squashing a few of her kids' dreams if it means keeping them safe, as she defines safety. But this doesn't prevent her having her younger brother Boris (Morgan Spector), newly arrived from the homeland, as a houseguest. Which you'd think would be an issue, as Boris tacitly but unmistakably makes his living from the weakness and misfortune of others, and there's little doubt he's tied to organized crime. It'll take him little time to try moving in on Diana's near-college-age daughter Mira (Sarah Steele), and coopting the services of her eldest, son Alex (Raviv Ullman) who is vulnerable to the lure of easy money that would both line his pockets and, more importantly, supplement the income of his father (Daniel Oreskes).

                        Unusually for a New Group entry, especially one directed by its artistic director Scott Elliott, Russian Transport doesn’t wallow in human depravity, but the nature of Boris’s brand of felony does more than dance with the dark side of human nature. The dilemma posed by the play is where the line gets drawn when simple right and simple wrong have been obscured by debt, obligation, secrecy and the threat of dire consequence. Ms. Sheffer sets up her characters and the moral dilemmas fairly neatly and interestingly, with one very powerful surprise near the end…but then doesn’t quite end. With a structure that sets up some form of ultimate confrontation and catharsis, she concludes on a somewhat ambiguous note, almost as if she doesn’t want to know the conclusion herself.

                        The night I attended, a good number of Russians were present and the ones I spoke to looked askance at the show’s accuracy, some taking umbrage at familiar clichés of Western perception. (The most quotable comment was: “I wish Americans understood we’re more than gangsters and dancing bears.”) Well enough acted and directed to hold for the evening, though. And, to borrow phrase from S. J. Perelman, that’s something—even if it’s nothing…

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