It’s been a calamitous week off-Broadway. In the New Group production of Russian Transport, a loud, inconsequential play full of cussing and yelling at the Acorn Theater on West 42nd Street, a family of mewling, whining Russian immigrants in a cluttered two-story house in Coney Island are struggling to keep their car service business going. When the lights go up, Diana, the sharp-tongued, long-suffering mother (played in a surprising career twist by woefully miscast liberal feminist comedienne Janeane Garofalo), is dragging a mattress down the stairs for her teenage daughter, Mira, who has been forced to sleep on the floor and relinquish her own upstairs bedroom for an uncle who is arriving from Russia. Mira’s plight is not eased by the constant taunts and jibes of her older brother, Alex (the excellent Raviv Ullman). The hard-working father, Misha (Daniel Oreskes), is not happy about the intrusion, especially when Uncle Boris (Morgan Spector) turns out to be a cocky, tattooed and sexually suggestive thug who parades around the house half-naked and seduces his niece when nobody is home. Diana, who is Boris’s older sister, overlooks and forgives her younger brother everything while Misha’s suspicions grow—with justification. When Boris discovers Alex is supplementing his meager income selling iPhones at Verizon with a lucrative job pushing drugs on the side, he uses his wily influence over his naive nephew to talk the kid into using one of the family cars to pick up Russian girls arriving illegally at JFK. The play plods along, with everybody annoyingly rattling away in Russian, while the phone in the home office rings incessantly with nobody on the other end. Eventually, Alex realizes that instead of a legit “chauffeur” job, he’s really been acting as a courier for a white-slavery ring that specializes in kidnapping, rape and forced prostitution. What he’s been doing is transporting innocent girls to a brothel in New Jersey where they disappear into the bowels of the sex-trafficking industry. Dad throws him out of the house. What’s worse, the mother seems to know about her son’s role in her brother’s illegal trade and turns her head the other way as long as the money is coming in. Russian Transport reduces the sauce of a dysfunctional family brew to an all-time new low.
Directed by Scott Elliott, the intensely staged outbursts and forceful family confrontations keep viewer concentration focused, and I have to admit the play delves into a subject I haven’t seen before onstage—a deranged and dingy world of the Russian criminal element in Brooklyn that is only a bridge away but might as well be on another planet. The canvas unraveled here is shocking and revealing, but Russian Transport is convoluted, protracted and, at two and a half hours, entirely too long. Erika Sheffer, the playwright, has talent, but she hasn’t learned to martial her gifts into a satisfactory whole. She writes arresting scenes, but fails to move them up the ladder to spiritual enlightenment. Worse still, the Russian accents render great chunks of the play incoherent. The actors are like caged fighters, trying to survive the wordy chaos. Don’t they know the bewildered audience doesn’t have a clue what they are saying half the time? As much as I admire Ms. Garofalo on screens large and small, she is appallingly lacking in stage discipline. Her voice runs the gamut from scratchy and noisy to totally inaudible. Yelling in the only seriously inauthentic Russian accent on the premises is bad enough, but mumbling in a muffled whisper that cannot be heard past the second row is intolerable. Russian Transport needs to go back into rehearsal and start over again. It is not ready for prime time.