Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By Erika Sheffer. Directed by Yasen Peyankov. With Aaron Himelstein, Tim Hopper, Mariann Mayberry, Melanie Neilan, Alan Wilder. 2hrs 25mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
It’s coincidence, perhaps, that Erika Sheffer’s 2012 play arrives at Steppenwolf at a moment when the average American is paying more attention to Russia than at probably any moment since the end of the Cold War. But the Sochi Olympics and our correlating reignited interest in what life is like these days for Russia and her citizens unfortunately highlight how little new insight Russian Transport delivers.
The play takes place in the Brooklyn home of Russian immigrants Diana (Mariann Mayberry) and Misha (Alan Wilder) and their teenage children. 18-year-old Alex (Aaron Himelstein) was born in Russia but was just a toddler when his parents brought him to New York, which makes it odd that he speaks fluent Russian but his 14-year-old sister Mira (Melanie Neilan), born in the States, does not.
Yet Sheffer’s plot requires that Alex speak the language, as it hinges on the arrival from the mother country of Diana’s brother Boris (Tim Hopper), who’ll be staying in Mira’s room for a while. The kids find him affable at first, but Misha seems a little uneasy; soon Mira finds a gun in her bedroom, and Boris is blackmailing Alex into doing some pickups and deliveries for him. Alex reluctantly agrees, thinking Boris is trafficking drugs, but his product turns out to be young Russian girls.
It’s not really a spoiler to reveal that much, since you can see where the first-time playwright is headed from the moment Boris arrives. Any initial promise of new revelations about the attitudes of post-Soviet Russians or Russian-Americans or the experiences of first-generation Americans dissipates as the characters settle into familiar trajectories. Sheffer’s complex plotting trips over itself without achieving a satisfying payoff.
Yasen Peyankov’s production is mostly well-acted, at least; Mayberry and Wilder fully inhabit their characters’ coarseness, and Himelstein nicely conveys Alex’s inner turmoil upon realizing what he’s gotten involved in. But Hopper’s Boris, while plenty menacing, crucially misses the magnetism that would draw his niece and nephew into his trust.