At times it can be difficult to tell whether Janeane Garofalo is more of a multi-hyphenate performer or a no-hyphenate ”personality” who pops up, sarcasm sharpened and eyes rolling like marbles, in whatever medium that will have her. There’s no doubt, however, that Garofalo’s work in the heavily accented comedy-then-drama Russian Transport is an actual performance. Displaying almost no trace elements of Gen X, she puts forth a genuine effort in her role as Diana, the shrewd, hectoring, from-Russia-with-tough-love mother of a Brooklyn-rooted family of four, and the result isn’t bad at all. Meanwhile, the character’s accent — an authentically dissonant blend of Cyrillic slipups and New Yawk mutations — only occasionally shows hints of Garofalo’s deadpan vocal fry.
But her presence in the core action of Russian Transport is surprisingly limited. In its first act, Erika Sheffer’s play feints towards a sort of modern Brighton Beach Memoirs family comedy of shticky squabbling and lovable ethnic malapropisms. Diana debates her teenage daughter Mira (Sarah Steele) over a proposed summer abroad in Florence, although in (stereo)typical Jewish-mother fashion it is less a debate than a bulldozing. Diana is more solicitous of her brother Boris (Morgan Spector), who has just arrived from the homeland and will be staying with them for a short while.
It is Boris, played by Spector with imposing physicality and a minatory grin, who pushes the proceedings in a new direction, away from faulty syntax humor and ”what you want, I should die?” guilt-inducements, and toward something more foreboding and truly guilty. Not all at once, though. While it’s clear from the start that Diana’s brother is no Uncle Vanya — he is built like a golem and exudes confidence and charisma that would, according to his sister, ”make the girls pregnant only from looking” — he also appears harmless, decked out in FOB threads and fawning in naive awe over the cell phone of his nephew Alex (Raviv Ullman). But as his wardrobe evolves from Gap surplus jeans circa 1996 to stylish turtlenecks and VIP-section black silk shirts, the veneer of conviviality rubs off to reveal the snarling, post-Soviet thug beneath. He quickly settles into both his new environs and his old habits, and by intermission he has transformed from a wolf in sheep’s clothing to a wolf in Sheepshead Bay.
Director Scott Elliott milks Boris’ predations for maximum tension, particularly in a scene in which he takes advantage of Mira’s sexual confusion and charms then threatens Alex into joining his underworld operation. (Heretofore, the young man made his money peddling 10-cents-a-minute plans at a Verizon store and the occasional 10-dollars-a-bag plan on the street corner.) The less fraught family scenes, of dinner and snarkily combative, casually profane conversation, tend to meander. Daniel Oreskes is affecting as the loving, if somewhat oafish father who is low on income but clean of conscience, but even his scenes can’t quite match the power of watching the other family members get caught in the web of Boris the Spider.
There are a couple of spoken references to Russian literature, but Sheffer’s play is more domestic than foreign in its focus. She doesn’t even follow the rule set forth by the tsar of dramaturgy, showing us not one but two ominous black handguns without a single shot fired. Which is fine by me. I’ve always found Chekhov’s gun to be more a suggestion along the lines of ”Don’t wear white after Labor Day” than a ironclad dictum. Unfortunately, the play lacks any sort of narrative discharge, not from the mouth of a gun or of a character, and ends abruptly before reaching the climax to which it had been building. It’s a long, often very good setup with quality acting, but while everyone works hard to draw back the hammer, nobody pulls the trigger. B
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