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A CurtainUp Review


New Orleans isn't a city that comes to mind when you think of Russian Jewish immigrants. Nor is Mardi Gras a holiday you'd think of as an occasion for a reunion of four of these new American dreamers. Yet there they are -- Tanya and Dima Savinich owners of a big suburban New Orleans house furnished expensively and the worst possible taste; and their compatriots Sophia and Edik Belkin, old friends from Russia who it turns out harbor anything but friendly feelings for their hosts.

At the end of act one, the party is well on the way to being a complete bust. Tanya's aggressive desperation to be accepted and its affect on her insecure daughter Lily, the hostility between her and Sophia Belkin and between the two husbands have been served up along with the h'ors doeuvres and ham (this most unkosher of foods would be more meaningful in a play about orthodox Jews). When a flock of birds fly past the dining room window the unpacking of hostilities comes to a halt. For a moment the two couples huddle near the widow and seem in harmony with one aother -- until one of them breaks the mood and declares "They're not cranes. They're storks." An inauspicious sign of what's to come in act two since to Russians cranes are symbolic messengers of peace.

This portentous transition between the two acts evokes memories of the 1957 Russian film The Cranes Are Flying. A romantic tragedy, this film closed at World War II's end with people making merry on the streets and cranes flying overhead, symbolizing peace for all except the tragic heroine who has learned that the man she loved has been killed. Dmitry Lipkin's Mardi Gras setting and the cranes that turn out to be storks are filled with possibilities for showing isolation and despair in the midst of a festive occasion. But wait -- according to Director Scott Elliott's introductory comments in the program, this is supposed to be a "complex but hilarious play" so maybe this title metaphor will reveal some comic complexities that have so far eluded us. Unfortunately, this party becomes less and less funny and the characters remain fragmentary. Director Elliott has also failed to create any sense of a real party attended by more than the six people we meet.

The one character who is developed enough to engage our sympathies is the insecure and unhappy Lily. Her mother's insistent prodding towards popularity drives her to secret smoking and self-denegrating sexual ecounter with young Alex Belkin (Amir Sajadi --trapped in a hopelessly confusing role, not to mention a completely gratuitous nude scene). With Amy Whitehouse playing Lily one can only hope (for her own sake and ours) that she will soon be too old to be typecast as an awkward, shrill teen ager. Her interpretation of the hapless girl has its moments who despite -- mostly when her rebellion against her pushy mother and her neediness is expressed silently. Her more audible scenes are quite another matter.

Mira Furlan, as the crude and pushy mother, never convincingly conveys any real love for Lily and her relationship with her husband (Josh Mostel) seems to have been entirely overlooked. Laura Esterman is wasted as the melancholy Sophia Belkin, a former concert pianist whose superiority to the vulgar Tanya and her vulgar house rivals Tanya's ambition. She sees that Tanya's efforts to turn Lily into a swan are hopeless, but fails to see signs that her son may end up squandering his talent on pot parties and other non-musical diversions once he gets to Juilliard in New York.

The husbands fare no better than their wives. Josh Mostel and David Margulies, two usually excellent actors, have a single scene that allows for some nuanced interaction. Not surprisingly, Dima Savinich (Mostel) who has always known how to make choices that benefit his life style if not his conscience has managed to zoom past Edik Belkin (Margulies) who helped him to come to America and get a job in his company. Belkin's wry puzzlement at why Savinich wants back a friendship that never existed echoes our own bewilderment at being present at a party where no one has anything to revealing to tell us and the "hilarity" is fleeting at best -- most of it provided by the tacky splendor of Derek McLane's set, and Mattie Ullrich's costumes (purple ad hot pink for Tanya, a little black number for Sophia and Mardi Gras disguises for the men).

As is usual for all Scott Elliott's plays, there's hardly a cast member who doesn't light a cigarette. Granted, Russians like the English characters in some of his past plays, do smoke a lot -- but some accommodation could and should be made to audiences who find second hand smoke unacceptable. Of course there is one non-smoker, an unseen dog whose yips punctuate the evening -- perhaps a symbolic opposite of those storks masquerading as peace-bringing cranes.

by Dmitry Lipkin
Directed by Scott Elliott
With: Laura Esterman, Mira Furlan, David Marguiles, Josh Mostel, Amir Sajadi and Amy Whitehouse
Set Design: Derek McLane
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Costume Design: Mattie Ullrich Sound Design: Red Ramona
Running time: 2 hours with one intermission
Presented by the New Group
St. Clements Church, 423 W. 46th St (9th/10th Avs), 279-4200.
10/08/99-11/28/99; opening 10/20/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 10/17/99 performance

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