A working-class Jewish family struggling to make ends meet. A gangster uncle newly arrived from Russia. Conflicts between immigrant parents and their more Americanized children. It all sounds a lot like the early-20th century world of Samson Raphaelson’s “The Jazz Singer” or Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers.”
But the New Group’s production of Erika Sheffer’s “Russian Transport,” the soap-operaish but engrossing new play that opened last week on Theatre Row, updates this familiar situation to present-day Sheepshead Bay. A Jewish family from the former Soviet Union finds that achieving success in America is as complicated than ever, and can entail moral and ethical compromises undreamed of by earlier generations of immigrants.
Before any of the actors take the stage in “Russian Transport,” a cabinet in the living room opens up and an inflatable mattress spills out, filling itself with air. It is a wonderful opening for a play that will center on the notion that our exterior appearance hides inner selves that burst out in all kinds of ways. Little wonder that the central symbol of the play is — perhaps with a bit of a nod to Tennessee Williams’ “Glass Menagerie” — a set of Russian nesting dolls.
The Jewish family in “Russian Transport,” which is directed tautly by Scott Elliott, seems, on the face of it, relatively functional. The ditzy mother, Diana (Janeane Garofalo) berates her spunky daughter, Mira (Sarah Steele), who keeps asking to be allowed to spend a college semester in Italy. The nasty son, Alex (Raviv Ullman), whose wages from his work at a cell phone store are crucial to the family’s subsistence, callously insults his sister at every opportunity. The bearish, affectionate father, Misha (Daniel Oreskes), works hard running a car service company, and then comes home every night to have dinner with his family. The children and parents engage in a constant stream of expletives, which appears to be their way of expressing simultaneous affection and contempt.
But when the mother’s tall, dashing, gun-toting brother, Boris (Morgan Spector), gets off the boat and comes to live with them, displacing the daughter to that blow-up bed in the living room, the family’s emotional balance gets thrown off kilter. As the son becomes increasingly drawn into his uncle’s mysterious business, which involves picking up young Russian models at area airports, the family glue starts to become unstuck.
What makes the play truly transporting is the fine ensemble work by the actors, which is a hallmark of New Group productions. Garofalo, who has starred in many films and TV shows (including “The West Wing”), is especially engaging, even as her Russian accent keeps slipping into a more Yiddish-inflected outer-borough Jewish accent. Spector is charming and chill-inducing in equal measure, with a penchant for true sadism. (When he gives his niece a Russian doll to add to the collection on her bureau, the gesture connects both to the nature of his business and to his dangerously fractured personality.) And Oreskes is convincingly outraged when he learns what his son has been drawn into.
But the real stand-outs are Steele, who is winning and heart-breaking as a young woman trying to find her place in the world, and Ullman, as a tortured young man who feels torn apart by his conflicting loyalties. Among the best scenes are those in which Steele takes on the roles of the women being driven around the city by Alex; they make it all the more poignant that Alex cannot help seeing his sister when he looks at each of them in the rear view mirror.
Unfortunately, the play itself, which is Sheffer’s first, often seems like the pilot for a TV series. Most of the plot twists are visible a mile away, although there is one revelation late in the play that is as unexpected as it is difficult to believe. The play ends abruptly, with much that still needs to be resolved among the characters, as if paving the way for a sequel. And for a play that suggests that all of us have many interior selves, the characters are not anywhere near multilayered enough, especially if compared to the characters of “Little Odessa” (1994), another film about a Russian Jewish involved in organized crime in Brighton Beach.
At any rate, Russian Jews are starting to get more visibility in our culture. “Russian Transport” joins the current Lifetime reality show “Russian Dolls,” which focuses on materialistic Russian Jewish women, and Anna Fishbeyn’s recent stage comedy, “Sex in Mommyville,” about a Russian Jewish couple whose children constantly interrupt them in the bedroom. Sheffer’s play may remind us that there is always more than meets the eye, especially when it comes to a segment of the population about which most of us still know much too little. But “Russian Transport” doesn’t end up taking its characters, or its audience, very far.
“Russian Transport” runs through March 10 at the Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St. Performances are Mondays through Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays at 2 p.m. For tickets, $61.25, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.