Review - Lansky: If You Could See Him Through My Eyes
"I'm a retired businessman," the title character of Richard Krevolin and Joseph Bologna's new solo play, Lansky, keeps insisting. "An honest businessman who kept clean and accurate books."
It's understandable if Meyer Lansky, played with an abundance of dignified, tough-guy charm by Mike Burstyn, might want to hold back a few details of his life as the reputed money man of the mob who, along with Bugsy Siegel, ran casinos in Miami, Cuba and Las Vegas. But an hour and fifteen intermissionless minutes of a guy being coy (Yes, we can understand what he's hinting at when he says he never killed anyone himself.) is not a steady foundation for interesting drama.
Directed by Bologna and inspired by Robert A. Rockaway's 1993 book, But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters, the play commences shortly after the June 1971 hit on crime boss Joseph Colombo. Lansky, suspected of having at least some connection to the gun down, is in Tel Aviv awaiting word on his application for Israeli citizenship; a move that would protect him from facing federal charges in the U.S. He warmly greets the audience as dinner guests in his favorite restaurant, tells us the perfect way to prepare a pastrami sandwich, tells an amusing story about the invention of DR. Brown's Cel-Ray Tonic and gives a sketchy, detail-free account of his rags to riches Jewish immigrant success story.
He certainly takes great pride in his efforts to violently break up Nazi rallies in the U.S. and to use his influence to divert shipments of munitions intended for use against Israel and having them wind up in the hands of Israeli soldiers. But claims of illegal mob activities are too often answered with little more than Borscht Belt humor. He refers to an unnamed book (presumably Hank Messick's 1971 Lansky) as, "265 pages, all about me. Some of it even true." He tells a persistent reporter trying to get details about Colombo that he loves her newspaper because it comes in handy when he runs out of Charmin.
Even with the weak narrative, Burstyn does a fine job of barely hiding the menace behind his character's amiable surface. While the play has its entertaining and informative moments, the real disappointment of the evening comes when imagining what the actor could have done with something more than this shorthand treatment.