"God can't be everywhere," the Russian proverb tells us, "so he created Russian mothers." In Russian Transport, the fourth production of their 11th season, Pure Theatre takes us to the Russian emigre enclave of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn for a close look at that greeting card worthy sentiment. Too bad that this often hilarious (sometimes harrowing) inspection offers up a whole lot less warm and fuzzy and a good deal more Big Brother than you might wish for in a Mother's Day card.
There's no question that family matriarch Diana (Erin Wilson) takes her God-like role to heart. The KGB has nothing on Diana and her ability to ferret out the truth, keep tabs on her brood, and guard a few secrets of her own. Hard-working and dedicated, both she and her husband Misha (R. W. Smith) have established a toehold on a very different worldview than the one they were raised in. But the old Soviet survival habits of paranoia, suspicion, and hyper-vigilance are too deeply ingrained in them to be entirely stripped away by the lure of the American Dream. As Diana puts it: "In America everything, it has a name. So you can talk about how it make you feel. Always you talk about how you are feeling. Everyone's a bullshit artist."
Lusting after and laboring towards something you don't entirely trust is the central pivot of Russian Transport, and it's dramatized, like most immigrant stories, in the way Diana and Mischa find their culturally assimilated children frustrating and incomprehensible.
Fourteen-year-old Mira (Gibson Carter) and her 18-year-old brother Alex (Bronson Taylor) are pretty typical American teens, and their misfiring interactions with their mother's old school ways are some of the most sparkling and sitcom-like sequences of this family drama. And drama it is. Especially once Diana's brother Boris (David Mandel) arrives on their doorstep fresh from Mother Russia and ready to take on the lifestyles of the rich and shameless for himself.
Boris is a big guy with big dreams, the apple of his older sister's eye. Diana sees in him a dazzling ambition that leaves her husband cast in a loser's shadow. Boris is willing to leverage every advantage to his goals, even family. It's not long before he's playing on his niece's innocence and his nephew's greed to draw them both into his peculiar, shifty orbit.
Mira believes her uncle is supportive of her plans to study abroad and might be able to talk her mother into allowing it. Alex, who is expected to supplement the family's income, splits his time between a cellphone company sales job and his father's failing car service. But a guy's gotta have a little pocket money, too. So Alex does a little side business his parents don't need to know about. Of course, it takes Boris all of 10 minutes to discover this hidden income stream, leverage it over Alex, and that's where Russian Transport dives straight into the deep-end of moral dilemmas and bad choices.
A split-level set designed by Richard Heffner is both family home and attached car service front office. Underscoring the notion that we are peering into a guarded, insular clan and their secrets, the set's dividing walls are blasted away like the crumbling remains of a bomb site. The set alone immediately creates tension — suggesting that we are about to witness those bombs going off. And we do. Playwright Erika Sheffer drew from her own immigrant family experience to get the tone just right and director Randy Neale's cast nails it.
Erin Wilson's Diana is tough, funny, provocative, and ruthlessly direct. Far from lavishing encouragement on the children she's pinned her hopes upon, she spares them nothing. It's a tough life, and she needs them to be tough. Bearing much of the brunt of these loving smacks to the head, Gibson Carter makes Mira both innocent and world-weary — that disconcerting, mild schizophrenia only teenagers can manage. Carter also plays a series of fresh off the plane Russian teenagers in short scenes with Bronson Taylor's Alex. The two actors draw you in with their energy and focus.
Misha has a real challenge to reconcile both his pride (often jabbed at by his spouse) and his conscience (when it feels like you're failing dismally, the notion of sticking to your principles is little comfort). R. W. Smith brings genuine heart to this difficult dynamic. His back-and-forths with Erin Wilson's Diana are a painfully realistic rendering of competitiveness between spouses.
David Mandel's Boris is a hoodlum and a con artist, and yet Mandel makes him come across as one of the most dedicated capitalists you'll ever meet. Boris is both reprehensible and totally understandable. A tough feat to pull off and one for which Mandel deserves full marks. Mandel is a treat to watch in this juicy role.
As Boris' would-be young apprentice, Taylor's Alex has the roughest ride in this play. Every single moral issue brought up by the plot seems to strike him directly, bodily. When the willingness to "go along to get along" finally comes at too high a price, Alex is the one who has to make the right choice for himself and his family. The final scenes owe much of their power to this actor's willingness to dig very deeply indeed.
Kudos to Pure Theatre for another in a series of intellectually satisfying and emotionally rich adventures in theater. Russian Transport will move you.