Steppenwolf fans are used to tense dramas that explode with violence or equally turbulent performances that sometimes crash and burn over a flawed script. What they're not used to is a simply solid play that comes together in the end without some visceral calamity as catalyst.
Until "Russian Transport."
"Russian Transport"★ ★ ★
Location: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650, www.steppenwolf.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, no shows May 3, no 7:30 p.m. show May 11; through May 11
Running time: About 2½ hours with intermission
Parking: Paid lot as well as street parking
Rating: For teens and older; mature language and subject matter
Steppenwolf's latest is the first play from Erika Sheffer, and it has a very familiar setup in the form of a stranger who enters a household only to throw off the family dynamic.
At first, it seems much larger and more dramatic than it is. A family of four Russian immigrants living in Brooklyn welcomes an uncle from the old country. They're all marked by the bitter, ironic, deterministic Russian sense of humor.
When teenage daughter Mira complains life isn't fair, her mother, Diana, replies, "Your grandmother was raped by Nazis. This is fair?" Later, she'll order her daughter, "Go get me some stamps before I pull your fingernails out."
Sheffer's dialogue crackles, and it's keen to the fluctuations of when a bit of not-so-gentle teasing begins to go too far and the claws come out.
Yet her larger point is far simpler, and based on an elementary bit of parallelism. Without spoiling the details, suffice to say that Uncle Boris has brought with him ties to the old family business, and it's not exactly a fantastic recipe for borscht.
I'm going to try to tiptoe around exactly what that business is, except to say if you guess drug-running you're close but wrong.
Yet it's what gives the play its focus and explains seemingly innocent surface conflicts. Mira wants to visit Florence on a school trip, and Uncle Boris backs her up, saying all young girls should see the world. Mom, by contrast, responds, "The only vacation you are taking is the one to my (rear end)."
The key part here is played, believe it or not, by Tim Hopper as the heavy, Uncle Boris. The veteran Steppenwolf trouper, known mostly for nebbishy roles, has a friendly, matter-of-fact quality as the long-lost relation, but there's also a thinly veiled menace, resonating somehow with the sort of calm ruthlessness Marlon Brando displayed as "The Godfather." He sparks the reactions all around him.
Mariann Mayberry is wonderful as the mother, Diana, with a caustic wit that masks a ferocious devotion to her family. Melanie Neilan is a little too over-the-top in playing an over-the-top teen; she starts out tugging at her floppy slipper and ends up flapping her arms in a caricature of teenage precociousness. But somehow it only serves to emphasize her all-American innocence.
Aaron Himelstein is better as the older brother, Alex, dragged into Uncle Boris' schemes not entirely against his will.
The weak link is Alan Wilder as the father, Misha. He seems such a mismatch for his wife that one thinks there must be something deeper behind their relationship. There may be, but it's not explored in this play.
Yasen Peyankov is Steppenwolf's default choice to play a Russian expatriate, and the play would no doubt benefit from his taking the role of the father. But instead Peyankov is the director behind the scenes here, and while he's missed onstage, he makes sure all the other players have his sense of withering Russian sarcasm. If they all seem authentic, it's largely thanks to him.
There's a Maguffin tossed in in the form of some sexual tension between Mira and Uncle Boris. And, in a double offense in a Russian-themed drama, Scheffer violates Chekhov's law by producing a gun a couple of times without really using it.
Yet the play makes excellent use of the hit songs "Blurred Lines" and "Get Lucky," while name-checking Selena Gomez, all of which gives it a contemporary feel. And, while pulling its punches toward the end -- a distinctly non-Steppenwolf quality -- it settles on a genuinely tender and entirely satisfactory note. In a nice touch, the first act ends with mother and father, brother and sister paired off, and the play ends that way as well, only with a dramatic difference.
"Russian Transport" is performed in Steppenwolf's upstairs theater in the round, and the thick accents, the carpeted stage and the lack of a single direction for the players to aim their delivery at muffles the dialogue. The audience sometimes strains to discern what they're saying. That's a minor quibble, however, in what amounts to a satisfying play -- nothing too overheated, nothing too tragic, just a solid piece of workmanlike theater. It's not Steppenwolf's usual mode, but in the midst of this most Russian of Chicago winters it will do.