nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 31, 2009
Lansky is a play by Richard Krevolin and Joseph Bologna that explores aspects of the life and career of Meyer Lansky, a man whose varied achievements included helping to found the first casino in Las Vegas and helping the newly-formed State of Israel by arranging to have arms shipments intended for Arab countries hijacked, a man whose closest associates were Charles "Lucky" Luciano and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel.
Mike Burstyn portrays Lansky in this solo show, who is here seen at a restaurant in Tel Aviv in 1971. Lansky has just arrived in Israel and is hoping to become an Israeli citizen so that he need not return to the USA, where the FBI is working hard to make a criminal case against him. Nearly 70 years old, he is ready to retire—though by no means is he retiring. While he waits for the result of his pending citizenship case, he regales us, his "guests," with reminiscences about some of his experiences.
Burstyn's Lansky holds the audience with assured and easy charm as he spins the various anecdotes that comprise the play. He talks about his impoverished youth in a shtetl in Poland (then part of the Russian Empire), and of the contrasting personal styles of his grandfather (who fought the Russians during a pogrom and later escaped to Palestine) and his father (who hid the family in a cave, much to young Meyer's shame). He takes us through his earliest "business" venture, running liquor for the Italian Mob during the first days of Prohibition; his anguish at the assassination of his longtime best friend Bugsy Siegel; and his patriotic service to the American and Israeli governments.
There are moments of Jewish-flavored humor, such as his explanation of why Dr. Brown's soda company ended up making Cel-Ray tonic. There are moments of warmth, as he talks about his beloved first wife. And there are moments of genuine passion—his encounters with the Israeli bureaucrats who are delaying his quest for citizenship are laced with equal parts righteous anger and bitter recrimination. Burstyn's performance is less compelling in this section, by the way; I sensed that the actor, like the character he plays here, is reluctant to be despised by the crowd, and consequently he doesn't quite show us the monstre sacre that the script suggests lurks within the otherwise civilized Lansky.
The piece ultimately made me hungry to learn more about Meyer Lansky. He's presented here as having convinced himself that he never broke the law, which has real resonance in a world where the powerful increasingly seem to feel that rules and regulations don't apply to them (as examples from Dick Cheney to Tom Daschle and everyone in between bear out). I left the theatre pondering the notion that so-called gangsters are not necessarily guiltier than others, just perhaps more easily detected and more hastily judged.