Total Rating: 
January 19, 2018
February 11, 2018
Renaissance Theaterworks
Theater Type: 
Studio Theater
Theater Address: 
158 North Broadway
Running Time: 
2 hrs, 15 min
Erika Sheffer
Laura Gordon

In the thick of a Wisconsin winter comes a surprising play that literally “transports” the audience to a modest Brooklyn flat, inhabited by an immigrant family. The foursome consists of two Russian parents and two teens. They are reaching for – but failing to achieve – the American Dream. The husband’s car company is failing, and the older teen is forced to turn over his earnings to pay the rent.

This is the world of Ericka Sheffer’s Russian Transport , produced by the reliably excellent Rennaisance Theaterworks. (Please note that his review is based on a preview performance.) Two of the key roles (the parents) are held by stage veterans Elizabeth Ledo and Reese Madigan. Ledo plays by far the most fleshed-out character. She’s the one who must keep the play’s fast-paced, snappy and funny dialogue on track.

Her character, Diana, is a wisecracking, Russian Jewish mother. As the play begins, she is moving her protesting, 14-year-old daughter Mira (played with sublime teen-infused angst by April Paul) from her bedroom to the downstairs couch. Diana is preparing for the arrival of her brother Boris, who is arriving from Russia to start his own version of the American Dream. “Oh, my God. I hate you!” Paul yells in disgust as her mother plops a pillow and blankets on the couch. “Tell me again,” says Ledo, matter-of-factly.

Russian Transport has an interesting pedigree. Written in 2012, it debuted Off-Broadway in New York’s Acorn Theater on Theater Row. Several years later, the show was produced by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater. The current production is the show’s Milwaukee debut.

Although it appears all of Sheffer’s characters have no problem speaking their minds (expletives included), the truth is that this family is full of secrets and lies. Boris’ arrival allows some of these secrets to be revealed. Not surprisingly, Boris has his own share of secrets.

The handsome Boris is played by Mark Puchinsky, a real Russian-American who lives in Milwaukee. Boris arrives with a bottle of Russian vodka and stories from “back home,” but his character quickly turns menacing. He forces the family (via blackmail) to do his bidding, and it’s clear that he acts with no conscience. Even a stint in a Russian jail apparently did little to improve his character. As Boris’ time in America goes on, he dresses more and more like an American businessman. These subtle changes can be credited to costume designer Jason Orlenko.

Interestingly, Russian dialogue is interspersed with English throughout the play. Director Laura Gordon, in addition to dialect coach Raeleen McMillion (and Punchinsky) ensure the dialogue’s smooth delivery, whether in English or Russian. (The Russian phrases are either translated into English or are said in a way that indicates the gist of the conversation. Audiences should have no qualms about understanding the foreign language.)

It’s clear from the start that Boris seems to suck all the air out of the room. This situation especially cramps Alex, the older teen (played by Max Pink). Alex’s father is typically at the office, allowing Alex some space to make sense of his life. Boris’ arrival changes all that.

Of all the characters, Alex is caught in the most vexing moral dilemmas. He is asked by Boris to pick up something at the airport and deliver it to an address in New Jersey. Boris offers to pay him. Alex thinks it must involve drugs or guns until his pick-up turns out to be a girl about his sister’s age. When the naive young woman (played by April Paul wearing a different costume) asks Alex when she is going to get her passport returned, it dawns on him what is happening. The woman thinks she is being groomed as a model when, in fact, she will soon be handed over to some unknown broker.

Pink excels at revealing his emotions as the ride continues from the airport to New Jersey. Sure, Alex is involved in his own bit of petty larceny - secretly selling dime bags of weed to make a few bucks. But Boris operates on a completely different scale, and the realization shocks Alex.

As the play goes on, Alex is forced to take two more girls to the same New Jersey address. Eventually, Alex’s conscience rebels. Boris demonstrates the cruel side of his brutal nature when Alex “forgets” to pick up one of his airport arrivals.

Although the play turns dark and ugly, it never loses its humanity. Although Diana is disappointed in her husband, she still loves him. (Misha tries to get ahead by illegal gambling, but his long, losing streak is threatening to close his business.) He can barely face his family, and Reese infuses every bit of sympathy into this humiliated man.

Russian Transport may be a difficult play to watch at times, but it’s clearly this winter’s standout production. As in many good plays, not every loose end is tied up by the play’s final curtain. Yet one cannot help thinking about this struggling family that braces for whatever comes their way – good or bad. Russians and immigrants are two of the play’s very timely features; and the play demonstrates how we are more alike than we are different.

adult themes, profanity
Elizabeth Ledo (Diana); Reese Madigan (Misha); April Paul (Mira, etc.); Matt Pink (Alex); Mark Puchinsky (Boris).
Set and Lighting: Jason Fassl; Costumes: Jason Orlenko; Sound: Megan B. Henninger
Anne Siegel
Date Reviewed: 
January 2018