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A CurtainUp Review
Richard Krevolin and Joseph Bologna's Lansky, starring Broadway veteran Mike Burstyn (Barnum, Ain't Broadway Grand) focuses not only on Lansky's darker side but also explores some of his more "philanthropic" adventures—such as his claims to have broken up Nazi meetings, raised money for Israel and diverted armaments that were going to the Arabs so that they ended up either in Israel or the bottom of the sea.
Burstyn's Lasky is a committed Jew. He loves pastrami on rye served with Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda, and he sprinkles his discourse with enough Yiddishisms to make Leo Rosten smile up in heaven. But his dedication to his religion doesn't include following its precepts. Lansky's only religion is his ruthless pursuit of wealth and power.
In fact, Lansky was such a good Jew that when he feared indictment he fled to Israel and requested citizenship. When he ran into problems, he called Goldie Meyerson (a.k.a. Golda Meir) and demanded payback for previous favors. She didn't pick up.
As the play opens, it is 1971 and Lansky is in a Tel Aviv restaurant awaiting the final decision on whether or not he will be granted Israeli citizenship. Though he is confident students of history know Lansky will spend his last years in his home in Miami Beach.
With the aid of projections, Lansky takes the audience from his hovel in Grodno to his hovel on the Lower East Side and on to his famous Caribbean casinos. In imaginary scenes, Lansky talks with his father, grandfather and mother. He asks his first wife to marry him and pleads with her not to blame him after her mental collapse.
Burstyn, a son of Yiddish theater royalty, is a commanding presence. Even under-rehearsed, he engages the audience fluently and amiably. He even gets one hapless man in the front row to take a bit out of his pastrami sandwich to prove that it is indeed "drek."
The multi-talented Bologna directs, but, as in many solo shows, it's hard to see exactly what his influence has been. Certainly the personality of the original Lansky and his own script don't leave much room for interpretation.
Somehow one still wishes Burstyn's Lansky was something more than a serious and menacing version of Jackie Mason. In fact, the show works best in those rare moments when Lansky lets the façade of Jewish bonhomie slip and we see him for the ruthless, cynical, self-justifying monster he really was.
Lansky will most probably have a limited appeal to those old enough to have some memory (however distant) of the Jews' answer to Al Capone. But although the play is indeed fascinating at times, it may not have much interest for those whose collective Jewish memory begins with Seinfeld.