The rather desperate cover-up is on display even before Dmitry Lipkin’s new play “Cranes” begins. There on the humongous stage of the Theater at St. Clement’s is a living-room and dining area that fairly screams nouveau-riche gauche. Far left is a bedroom that must be bigger than most Manhattan apartments. Derek McLane’s incredibly detailed set distracts for a while, as do Mattie Ullrich’s entertainingly garish costumes, which keep popping up at regular intervals in the evening. But then there is the play itself, a world premiere offered by the New Group with a fine ensemble under the able direction of Scott Elliott. A compelling story may be found somewhere amid all the polished chrome and potted palms onstage, but Lipkin never finds a way to dramatically ignite his many ideas about assimilation and survival.
Two Russian-Jewish immigrant couples who have been estranged for several years reunite at a Mardi Gras party in a suburb of Baton Rouge, La. Tanya and Dima Savinich (Mira Furlan, Josh Mostel) are now wealthy but still boorish, while the down-on-their luck Belkins, Sophia and Edik (Laura Esterman, David Margulies), bravely cling to some fading image of themselves as noble creatives: She was a concert pianist, he an inventor.
Each family includes a teenage child, Alex Belkin (Amir Sajadi) and Lily Savinich (Amy Whitehouse), who apparently parted company years ago on much better terms than their parents. The two couples hate each other’s guts and, from the tenor of their none-too-brief reunion, always did and always will.
Lipkin must have realized that two married couples despising each other was not enough to sustain a two-act play, so while the Saviniches are initially contrite, the Belkins return the favor by expressing utter contempt for their former friends. Then, just as the Belkins are about to get up and leave in total disgust, they inexplicably become sentimental about the old days in Mother Russia, which is a cue for the Saviniches to turn and berate them for the next 10 minutes. This game of musical chairs goes on all evening.
Not that Lipkin messes around when he wants to get a point across. “Where are the ashes, the ashes of atonement?” asks Edik. Dima replies, “We are Jewish. Besides, tomorrow is Ash Wednesday.”
“You are a vulgar woman living in a vulgar house,” says Sophia. Tanya shoots back: “At least I’m not living in a dream.”
In the end, the Saviniches and the Belkins are both right. They shouldn’t see each other ever again.