“She a scary woman,” says her brother, Boris (Morgan Spector), in his broken English. “A fascist,” answers her daughter, Mira (Sarah Steele).
She is Diana, played with panache and a thick Russian accent by Janeane Garofalo in “Russian Transport” at Theatre Row. With deadpan delivery, Garofalo makes Diana an almost clownish yet authentic bully. Her threats (“I pull you fingernails out”) are empty, but you wouldn’t want to get on her bad side, especially if you’re one of the offspring she keeps under her thumb.
But her effect on her children pales next to that of their Uncle Boris, newly arrived from Russia. He galvanizes 14-year-old Mira’s sexuality in ways that are not always clear or pleasant. And he recruits 18-year-old Alex (Raviv Ullman) into chauffeuring unknowing young girls, presumably destined for the sex trade, from the airport.
Director Scott Elliott elicits uniformly strong performances from the tight ensemble, which also includes Daniel Oreskes as Diana’s husband, Misha. Derek McLane’s set convincingly evokes a Sheepshead Bay duplex, but scenes played on the upper level lose some of their immediacy.
Playwright Erika Sheffer has a gift for delivering information obliquely, although occasionally her lack of specificity is frustrating. Still, watching Alex struggle with his dilemma against the backdrop of family life worn thin by Boris’ disruptive presence is consistently involving. With a nonchalant style that seems rambling but is actually structured, Sheffer keeps you engaged, if sometimes puzzled.