NEW YORK — Some families have trouble communicating. The immigrant family at the center of Erika Sheffer's "Russian Transport," the latest production from the talented director Scott Elliott at The New Group, is not one of them.
"Your skull? I gonna crush it like a nectarine." That would be Mom, aka Diana (played by comic actress Janeane Garofalo) talking to her 14-year-old daughter, Mira. In another exchange, Mira protests mildly at something being unfair, as teens tend to do. "Fair?" Diana retorts. "Your grandmother was raped by Nazis."
You get the picture — one can feel a little beaten up after just a few scenes of this crass banter. Still, Sheffer, in her off-Broadway debut, imbues her well-drawn characters with a sense of common loyalty.
And that loyalty is sorely tested when Diana's brother, Boris — virile, ripped and mysterious — comes to visit their Brooklyn home. A man of few words, played skillfully with an undercurrent of subtle menace by Morgan Spector, Boris is the troubled center of "Russian Transport," which opened Monday night at the Acorn Theater.
Boris' secret talent is getting under everyone's skin in a dangerous way, particularly Mira and her 18-year-old brother, Alex. To Mira, he's sexually alluring (and at 14, that's dangerous indeed.) To Alex, a student who works odd hours at a Verizon store and at his dad's car service to make cash, Boris is the older guy who knows how to get richer, faster. He also figures Alex out pretty quickly: An 18-year-old can't be making the kind of money he is (check out the clothes) without selling something a little more lucrative.
But selling drugs is child's play compared to what Boris has in store for Alex. Tasked with running errands for his uncle, the boy finds himself picking up young Russian girls from the airport, their heads filled with dreams of modeling. When, one asks him, will she get her passport back? Suddenly he realizes he may be into something truly sinister. It gets worse when he realizes the girl is his sister's age.
And yet Alex can't quite tear himself away, either. Raviv Ullman is fascinating to watch in the role of this young man full of swagger, in a hurry to make it, but also, somewhere deep down, keenly aware of what's right and wrong.
The proceedings are directed by Elliott with his usual skill and perceptiveness, and the rest of his cast is uniformly good, particularly Sarah Steele as the nerdy but also feisty Mira, who takes her lumps from virtually everyone: a mom who tells her to wear a bra because she is "swinging from tree to tree" like a gorilla, a brother who critiques her acne, and an uncle who toys with her emerging sexuality.
Steele is especially impressive in the additional scenes she plays as three different young Russian girls, fresh off the plane, unaware of what's in store for them. (It's a clever touch on Sheffer's part to have them played by the same actress.)
Daniel Oreskes gives one of the evening's more moving performances as Misha, the honorable and upstanding father, trying to maintain control of both finances and wayward family members. As his wife, Garofalo, playing against type, looks a bit young for her role — sometimes she looks barely older than her daughter — but admirably embraces the broad accent, the occasional lines in Russian, and the crass humor to create an entertaining portrayal of a truly challenged mother.
One of the play's major questions is to what extent Diana knows what her crafty brother is doing. Another is just how far Alex, who clearly does know, will go.
That's a question that only gets answered, or so it seems, with not even a line, but a gesture. In this family of over-communicators, it's a nice touch that the final moment is wordless.