Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through June 8
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s theme for the season is “Getting Ahead: How Far Will You Go?” Keep this in mind while you’re watching Erika Sheffer’s “Russian Transport,” and you’ll have less trouble figuring out why you should spend close to two-and-a-half hours in the company of the unpleasant people in this semi-autobiographical drama about a Russian Jewish immigrant family living in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
Each of the characters grapples with this question while confronting the myths and realities of the American Dream. The members of the older generation — father Misha, mother Diana and mother’s brother, Boris — have made their choices, heavily influenced by the culture clash between the old country and new. The Americanized children — 18-year-old Alex, who emigrated as a toddler, and 14-year-old Mira, who was born in the U.S. — are trying to figure it out, and the arrival of Boris from Russia provides the catalyst. He moves in like an invasive disease, at first somewhat mysterious but then highly insidious, bringing Misha and Diana’s shady pasts with him.
The measure of success is money, and the issue is how to get it. Misha (Alan Wilder) runs a legal car service out of his home, but it’s failing dismally. Diana, who works in an office, holds her husband in contempt and carefully monitors every dollar. When Boris sets up an illegal and exploitative transport business like he had in Russia, she’s willing to turn a blind eye because it’s profitable and he’s family.
But what Misha and Diana don’t know at first is that Boris sets about infecting their children. He emotionally seduces the naive Mira by being sympathetic to her desire to travel, specifically on a school-sponsored trip to Italy over her mother’s objections, then betrays her in increasingly harsh and frightening ways. He lures Alex, who has been holding down a day job at Verizon, handling shifts for his father, and going to night school, into working for him, threatening to tell his parents that he’s been dealing drugs on the side (to make the only cash he can keep) if he doesn’t.
Basically a good kid despite his bravura at the beginning, Alex has a crisis of conscience and wants out of the dangerous, morally reprehensible job, but he’s scared of Boris and doesn’t know where to turn for help. As he struggles, the truth emerges, and our sympathies shift with the changing family dynamics. The most heartening thing is the way Alex and Mira, who had nothing but insults for each other at the outset, offer mutual protection and support.
Unfortunately, after building some tension in spite of director Yasen Peyankov’s rambling direction, the play winds down to a disappointingly inconclusive ending. And that’s just one of the shortcomings. Another is that it’s needlessly long, and although the dialogue may capture the way immigrants like this really speak, the decision to go back and forth between English and Russian to make sure an English-speaking audience understands everything that’s being said becomes tedious, especially since some of the language shifts make no sense. Peyankov has said in interviews that he finds the characters’ abusive talk hilarious, but to me very little was funny.
While Alex’s dilemma is the evening’s centerpiece, and he’s played with believable complexity and confusion by Aaron Himelstein, Mariann Mayberry’s Diana dominates every scene she’s in. A loud, vulgar harpy with her dyed burnt-orange hair and fake leopard top, she bullies and belittles her husband and gives motherhood a bad name with the way she badgers her children. Both the character and the performance are larger than life, but I had trouble buying the idea that Alan Wilder’s meek Misha, pummeled and put-upon by the world yet ultimately a decent fellow, would marry this woman or that she produced children like Alex and Mira. Then, again, Melanie Neilan’s Mira is one-dimensionally shrill at times, and her skill as an actress comes out mostly in the three other young women she portrays, doubling that has a profound dramatic purpose as well as a practical one. Tim Hopper rounds out the cast as the corrupt, immoral Boris, and he couldn’t be better at conveying otherness coupled with ambition and a deep disregard for others.
Joey Wade’s environmental scenic design puts us right in the badly decorated Brooklyn home, while Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes suit each character perfectly.
When I left the theater, I was very glad that “Russian Transport” was over, but in the days that followed, I found that it haunted me a little, and I’m still not sure why.