Feb. 17--"Russian Transport," the new show at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, is not some controversial Sochi shuttle service but the name of a laudably ambitious drama from Erika Sheffer. The transport in the title refers partly to the immigration of Russians to the United States -- here, into the section of Brooklyn known as Sheepshead Bay -- and partly to the more sinister implications of cross-border migration, involving the trafficking of young girls. Thus the play, which is Sheffer's first major work, wants to be a rollicking and mostly comedic portrait of how immigrants, especially their American-born children, can find themselves caught between the demands of different cultures, especially when the old country comes to visit, and also a serious look at Russian-born victims whose American dreams make them fodder for international abuse.
To put all this another way, "Russian Transport" is partly an updating of "A View From the Bridge" or "Brighton Beach Memoirs" for a different generation of immigrants (the characters here run a New York car service). It's partly a pulpy, over-ripe, Tarantino-esque crime thriller with guns, seductions and an archetypal Russian villain in a shiny suit, and partly a moral tale about the insidious way struggling young immigrants can be tempted by big money and drawn into a life of international crime. Alas, all of that disparate weight, especially from a relative neophyte writer, requires a much richer, quicker and more complicated production than the uneven, less than ideally cast and weirdly dull affair that Steppenwolf is delivering through May in its Upstairs Theatre.
The off-Broadway premiere of "Russian Transport" (from the New Group in 2012), starred Janeane Garofalo, an indication of the need for this play to be funny to work. There are, alas, few laughs in Yasen Peyankov's production, which is strange indeed from a director known for his sense of humor. The problems that get in the way are myriad, but they begin with a rambling production that has so much dead air, any character-based comedy just seems to leak out of the show and down the elevator.
The early sections of the piece are dominated by the relationship between a Russian (and Jewish) mother, played by Mariann Mayberry, her well-meaning but somewhat rebellious teenage daughter Mira (played by Melanie Neilan) and her earnest but entrepreneurial son, Alex (Aaron Himelstein). Mayberry, like the other actors playing Russian-born characters here, has acquired a thick Russian accent -- so thick, in fact, you struggle to follow what she is saying, even as you also lose most of Neilan's lines, because she has a habit of swallowing many of them. Mayberry's Diana has none of the surely requisite mix of all-consuming love and persistent pedagogy that we associate with Jewish mothers all across the globe -- instead she comes off as a guttural harpy, frankly, which knocks the heart of the show and is a strange misstep by so remarkable an actress. And why is her hair dyed so hideously? Talk about a stereotypical choice. It makes it seem as if Diana is choosing to look like a central-casting archetype, yet the script has her struggling to be seen as something entirely different.
The patriarch of the family, Misha (Alan Wilder), a guy who refers to the Internet as the "Internyet" (admittedly amusing) is similarly colorful and, alas, similarly disconnected from any kind of affection, again undermining the play's themes of a family trying to avoid being ripped apart by the arrival of Boris (yes, Boris), a smarmy villain played by Tim Hopper. One guesses Boris' interest in Mira before he makes his move; otherwise Hopper is too good an actor to fall into all the obvious traps with this kind of role. But the disjointed state of this family makes them such an easy collective target, it feels like the character, and thus the actor, has nothing to overcome. It's all too easy for Boris.
With no cohesive world imagined, the production mostly just meanders. The odd scene has some spark, and not just from Hopper: Himelstein's performance is strong and credible enough for us to feel a good deal for his character. I'd also note, in fairness, that "Russian Transport," the script, struggles mightily with a big structural problem of its own creation: the numerous scenes in which characters who speak Russian are speaking to Russians. In reality, of course, they'd just speak Russian, which doesn't work for the audience, so Sheffer ties herself in knots providing a kind of simultaneous translation within the dialogue, which often involves everyone saying everything twice. That is not easy to stage well.
Still, Russian or not, entire scenes go on and on when we've grasped their point much earlier. At one moment in Act 2, Wilder's character puts in an order for takeout food, an order to which we are obliged to listen in full, for no apparent reason other than to make us all wish we already were at dinner.
The physical rules of this production are never clear, especially as it relates to how people get from one place to another. At one point, Neilan's Mira sat off to the side, even as other characters played out a scene in which her character clearly would want to intervene; I was never sure if she was on or offstage. Other such problems abound. Joey Wade's design, which consists mostly of realistic photos of Brooklyn that would illuminate on cue and that get trapped in this theater's difficult layout, is not one of the very talented Wade's best creations.
Most disappointing of all, though, is the generalized mush of so many of these scenes, which is very unlike this particular theater company. Way too long for its own good, "Russian Transport" is a marginally better script that this production suggests, but it still wallows in stereotype. Still, when you have a script that starts out funny and turns dark, the most crucial knife on one's belt always is the ability to cut the audience to the quick. Yet this rambling production has nary a sharp edge anywhere. Given how much immigrants from the former Soviet Union have changed the face of the great cities of Western Europe and the United States, the time is indeed ripe for more dramas on this underexplored diaspora. But at Steppenwolf, this show gets caught between a director's clear desire to make his production fun and larger than life, without underpinning that life with much discernible truth.
When: Through May 11
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Co., 1650 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $20-78 at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org
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