Review - Russian Transport: The Second Oldest Profession

"It's not fair," the 14-year-old girl complains to her mom.

"Fair? Your grandmother was raped by Nazis," snaps back the Russian immigrant. "This is fair, this life?"

Played with no nonsense sternness by Janeane Garofalo, Diana may not be the warmest of mothers, but in Erika Sheffer's simmering family drama, Russian Transport, her coldness is a survival skill utilized to help her family achieve the American dream.

Diana's burly, hard-working husband, Misha (Daniel Oreskes), runs the struggling family business, a car service, from a home office. (Derek McLane's two-level, multi-roomed set, is realistically detailed, but with one interesting abstract feature.) Their 18-year-old son, Alex (Raviv Ullman), helps out with the driving, but makes more money for the family with his job at Verizon. Fourteen-year-old Mira (Sarah Steele), who gets teased for her looks by her brother, boosts her confidence with after-school make-out sessions with a boyfriend.

There are some family secrets to be revealed, but first comes the arrival of Diana's younger brother, Boris (Morgan Spector), who has left Russia to live temporarily at their Sheepshead Bay home.

Lean, handsome and quick-witted, Boris is not only a master of seduction - as a drinking buddy, a loving brother, a role model or the object of adolescent lust - but he's crafty enough to keep himself blameless when trouble arises by making sure he always has an advantage over the other person involved. Spector does an excellent job of subtly revealing the different roles Boris plays for each family member, hiding a dangerous man beneath a calm and controlled exterior.

Alex, a fledging opportunist, accepts what seems like an easy money job from Boris, secretly using the cars from the family business to run a series of errands. But by the time he realizes the consequences of what he's doing, Boris has made sure he's in too deep to safely get out. Ullman does fine work in having Alex go from a fearless kid to one who panics at his first taste of how real the world can get.

While Sheffer's dialogue (sometimes in Russian) and characters are certainly engaging, and the moral dilemma of which illegal actions are okay when you're doing it for family and which cross over the line makes for an interesting argument, the action seems to fizzle toward the end and the expected bang at the finish turns out to be more of a whimper. But director Scott Elliot and his tight ensemble deliver a believably discomforting family portrait.

Photos by Monique Carboni: Top: Sarah Steele, Janeane Garofalo and Raviv Ullman; Bottom: Morgan Spector and Raviv Ullman.

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Despite its title, it's easy to forget what a funny play Margaret Edson's Wit is. But then, this Pulitzer winner is as much about humor - the dry, detached kind - and its power to attack and defend as it is about a woman's slow and painful death from late stage ovarian cancer.

Dr. Vivian Bearing (Cynthia Nixon), a literature professor with a particular passion for dissecting every punctuational possibility in the metaphysical poetry of Elizabethan John Donne (His "Death Be Not Proud" is a running theme.) is placed in the abstract position of spending the final moments of her life narrating a play about her treatment. ("It is not my intention to give away the plot, but I think I die at the end.")

Vivian is not particularly pleased with her task, especially since she's been told there would humor involved, but she soldiers on, playing scenes which tell how her cancer was discovered at such a late stage that the only hope to extend her life would be very heavy doses of an experimental chemotherapy. It won't cure her and it will be very painful. With no friends or family members to be concerned about, she accepts, knowing her participation may help increase medical knowledge. The woman who has devoted her life to literary research now becomes the subject matter for scientific research.

With Lynne Meadow directing, Nixon pulls off the exceedingly difficult task of keeping the acerbic Vivian sympathetic; not the easiest acting job even with Edson's exceptional text. With her youthful round face under a hairless skull and sporting a red baseball cap, she somewhat resembles American culture's most loveable loser, Charlie Brown, trying to keep her composure in an unwinnable situation. Her distain for the imperfections of others is matched with a self-depreciating smirk when encountering the indignities of her hospital stay, drawing the audience in with an us-versus-them view of the people surrounding her.

The fine supporting company does not have a great deal of depth to work with, their characters being more representations than people. Michael Countryman is the businesslike doctor who oversees her treatment, Greg Keller is the young doctor who nearly aced her course in college (and who, like his former professor, keeps forgetting his professional requirement to show concern for others) and Carra Patterson is the truly compassionate nurse who becomes a comfort to Vivian when she finds her normal defense mechanisms useless.

Nixon's evolution of Vivian from a content intellectual loner to someone who is able to make peace with what is beyond her control is delicately done without an ounce of cheap sentiment; just the way Dr. Bearing would have wanted it. It's a beautifully crafted performance in a demanding and emotion-tugging drama.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Cynthia Nixon; Bottom: Cynthia Nixon and Greg Keller.

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From This Author Ben Peltz