The Gift of Grift

Isn't it Rich?

Uh, actually, no, it's Malloy. But if Stephen Sondheim sounds surprised when he sends in the clowns, imagine how the neighborhood feels when Dmitry Lipkin sends in the gypsies.

Because that's exactly what the Soviet Jewish émigré has done — brilliantly — in FX's rag on "The Riches," its new scene-stealing series of a family of American gypsies who have stolen the flim right out of the flam of a rich upper-middle-class family, the Riches, and assumed their place in society.

This is a social register that registers as comically dramatic; turns out those crystals in that crystal ball are for real.

And so is this Monday-night series, in which the malleable Malloys — Eddie Izzard is at his best as Dad the Deceptive; Minnie Driver can drive the getaway car with her foot on the gas and your throat at the same time as the driven Dahlia — are pros at cons, fortunate tellers of half-truths and whole lies with a price scammer where their heart should be.

The gift of grift is theirs, and it all goes down in rural Louisiana, where "by the book" in the bayous is not the Malloy m.o. Grift and grits — perfect together for the on-the-run Malloys, whose own little night music is filled with ca-ching chords as they put their money where their feet are after stealing from their own tribe.

And the tribe has spoken — they're going to get 'em! It's the ultimate get for a network: What series creator Lipkin speaks to is the very notion of strangers in a strange land; and if those strangers are stranger than most you'd find on a suburban street, well, that's what fills the coffers of these Riches.

Lipkin's not one for mere lip service; the Moscow-born bayou-loving Louisiana transplant learned the English language before he could crawfish. Who better to teach him about ragamuffins-to-Riches than "The Beverly Hillbillies," which Lipkin watched soon after arriving here at the age of 10.

Swimming pools, movie stars … not so fast. First, there was the fact of fitting in. And he felt his toes being stepped on early on when, during a schoolyard pick-up game of football, Lipkin almost took a pass on playing when admonished that the game's rules wouldn't allow for "no Russians."

Huddle of hatred for the huddled masses? No Statue of Liberty play for a player from Podolsk? First and do svedanya?

Nyet — he misunderstood "rushing" for "Russians." For a two-minute warning, the Soviet Jew felt he was back home again.

But this was to be his field of dreams, and the anti-Semitism he had once stared down in the USSR raised the ante for his drive to succeed in the USA.

But the poly-sci major at Rutgers U. got into a rut, abandoning the docket of destiny with a legal career in favor of writing, which he went on to as a grad student at New York University. And, from there eventually, to another career stage in New York theater, where Lipkin's play "Cranes" — about Soviet Jews in America — had a leg up on critics, capturing bravos for its blinchick-style bravura.

The write stuff found its way to FX, where Lipkin's special effect of a script about American southern Travellers (gypsies) found some traveling music serenading its acceptance at the network level.

In a way, the Riches feel like family, especially now that Lipkin's scripted Driver's doppelganger of a character as Jewish. Who could pass up such an extreme makeover at Passover? Pass the kreplach — and the con?

Batten down the Baton Rouge hatches when the Malloys/Riches are in town? Here come the Lipkins — as nice as the Riches are nefarious!

"Actually, we were the second Russian Jewish family in Baton Rouge," says the 39-year-old writer. And the first? "They had moved in six months earlier. By the time we arrived," he laughs, "they were assimilated."

Could the Lipkins simulate such a sense of fitting in? When in Rome … no, really, when in Rome: "It was so disorienting at the time," recalls Lipkin, "to leave Russia, then live in Rome for four months" before coming to the United States.

Basil left behind for beignets? His state of confusion was exacerbated by the fact "that we knew nothing about Baton Rouge."

Hold that tiger! The baton race had almost passed him by. "It's as if your whole space is turned upside-down."

But, from downtrodden to uplifting. Back in the USSR … "In Russia, in Moscow, I knew vaguely that I was Jewish; I didn't really link that to who I was."

Log on to legacy: Here it became a bonfire of the bruchahs. It was wonderful, says Lipkin, who has such fond memories "of going to a Jewish camp in Utica, Miss.," and not missing out on that right of rites: His Bar Mitzvah.

"I was able to take on a whole new identity and embraced it, which affected my critical look at the world," he says now. "And that became a major theme in my creative output."

Putting out the fires of fear from the past meant a newfound freedom. "It was a reinvention of self," he notes. "I had never been able to be attached to the idea of who I really was."

He became an attaché of a new attitude, and it reflected in his writing, "which was emotionally truthful."

Before you could say Pravda, he was proving himself elsewhere as well. Glad to experience glasnost firsthand, Lipkin returned to his homeland for a visit 11 years ago, "trying to reconnect with memories," only to discover that "Moscow was a very different place."

And he was in a different inner space. "I was definitely not Russian anymore," he says.

Had he traded in the tri-color Russian flag of red, white and blue to try the American colors of … red, white and blue? Was he an American, if not Russian, anymore?

"Somewhere in between," he replies.

There is no middle ground for the Malloys; grifters they are, basking in bajours ("scams") by the bayou. But yet, as the series continues, they too continue to grab at the American Dream that had dragged on their conscience earlier.

Lipkin's own dream was maybe not one shared by his parents, into whose Secaucus attic he sequestered himself for a while trying to write the great American screenplay. "Moscow on the Hudson"? That was already taken.

"They were not worried," he says affectionately of his supportive parents. "But they were concerned."

After all, when Jewish kids grew up in the Soviet Union, it was assumed they were all Ivan: "I van to be a computer expert," "I van to be a scientist."

But "I van to be a Hollywood guy"?

"That stuff," chuckles Lipkin, "didn't happen in the world I was from."

Indeed, from Russia with lofty professions: Dad was "an engineer, Mom a dentist." Progeny profile … my son, the screenwriter?

You'd have a better chance of finding no line and a healthy chicken at the Moscow market: "There was that sense between them that I was not doing what I was capable of."

But, da — he did. "The Riches" may make Lipkin just that, from rubles to riches. And if there is a filmy gauze of gratitude that comes with it, Lipkin salutes all those who helped him along the way, which includes his wife, who "had directed a feature film and done some screenwriting herself."

But when it came to his theatrical exploits, Lipkin saw the exit sign early on. "I felt that I had done all I could do in theater in New York," which can be a difficult scene to crack.

Go with the flow as a struggling artist? "I was a little pissed off," he laughs at feeling a little left out. Stage left, and right on to Hollywood. "I instantly tried to get a job in TV."

Who knew it would bring out the gypsy in him? Or for that matter … the ham? In an upcoming episode, Dahlia, now known as the chi-chi Cherien Rich, is caught by house guests serving up forkfuls of pork at her Southfork-style mansion.

Travellers-cum-capitalist pigs? A slab in the face to Jewish tradition? When questioned by his puzzled new pals, Wayne, now known as Doug in his new digs, detours the conversation, quickly explaining that they're from a "pig-eating clan" of Jews.

Prose as a new con vocabulary and game: Six degrees of kosher bacon?

"The show is so much about identity," says its creator, who concedes that when it comes to social acceptance, Jews and gypsies have a shared history of inhospitable "housewarmings" by those who have pulled the welcome mat out from under them.

But life is no longer a cruel "knock, knock" joke; the doors have opened. Outsider no more — indeed, Lipkin laughs at the notion of himself as "buffer," gypsy banter for those from the establishment — the sentient scripter senses he truly has the dream job.

But has he reached the American Dream? Yes, the protean player is proud to say — but with eyes wide open, knowing that to dream on is to be drenched in the riches of possibilities, that the impossible dream is just a wonderful windmill away: "I hope it's one that continues," says the Man of La Moscow. 



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