You won’t mistake the set of Vassily Sigarev’s Black Milk for Grand Central. Really, it makes even Port Authority seem hygienic. This decrepit train station connects travelers in backwater Russia to what, in the words of the narrator, is “definitely not a village. In fact, it’s not really even a populated place.” Late one winter night, the depot’s stained linoleum, scarred walls, and sciatica-inducing plastic chairs cradle the sozzled narrator and two out-of-towners: small-time huckster Lyovchik (Josh Marcantel) and his very pregnant wife, Poppet (Liba Vaynberg).
Sigarev’s play, which made a murky splash at the Royal Court in 2003, details the toxic relations of these parents-to-be. Poppet is a cigarette-smoking, vodka-swilling, lollipop-sucking harridan with a swollen belly and a filthy mouth. Her most tender endearment: “Fuck off, asshole.” At first, Lyovchik, a leather-jacketed smoothie with a tightly curled beard, seems the victim of her whims and tirades, but the script soon exposes a nasty strain of abuse.
Sigarev has further thematic concerns. One is the spiritual and actual poverty of the new Russia. The derisive ticket clerk (Anna Wilson) wears a Chinese leather coat and a Polish beauty mask. She lines her pockets selling home brew, which occasionally poisons the locals—the same people who buy Lyovchik’s rickety Malaysian toasters. “They don’t even deliver bread around here,” notes the clerk. Sigarev also has an abiding interest in corruption. The title fluid perhaps refers to Poppet’s breast milk, too tainted to nurture her baby. But it carries echoes of the thousands of Ukrainian children, sickened by radioactive milk in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster. It also condemns Poppet and Lyovchik’s bond, which is noxious rather than mutually nourishing.
Yet these topics and tropes don’t entirely emerge in Michel Hausmann’s unnuanced, indifferently acted production. Hausmann, an ambitious student in Columbia’s MFA program, seems attracted to the vulgar fireworks of the script, but not to the emotional and social anguish underlying the verbal blasts. Sigarev’s play offers a raw, discomfiting ride, but Hausmann never quite gets us onboard.