After years of the Corleones and the Sopranos, we’re accustomed to a nuanced view of gangsters that takes into account their humanity and family values, but Richard Krevolin and Joseph Bologna’s “Lansky” goes all the way to hagiography — it’s so sympathetic and uncritical it borders on a testimonial. The authors have enormous interest in the legendary criminal mastermind’s efforts to live out his final years in Israel but little in the activities that made it impossible for him to gain permission to do so.
The Meyer Lansky (Mike Burstyn) we first meet in the back room of a Miami diner is the genial host of his own retirement party prior to immigrating to the one country that he believes will accept him, through its Law of Return granting all Jews citizenship.
He waxes nostalgic about his hardscrabble youth in Poland (“even the dirt was anti-Semitic”) and cronies like Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel (“his real strength was working with people”), taking pains to mention their efforts to combat the German-American Bund, Nazi spies in wartime and Israel’s enemies afterward. “I’m just a retired private investor,” he assures us as he waves goodbye to a notorious past about which he seems in deep denial.
We expect to get down to brass tacks, if not brass knuckles, when the back wall of Wolfie’s Diner, minimally but ingeniously designed by Tom Buderwitz, spins to reveal “Zitzhak’s,” where Lansky learns that a caveat has been tacked onto the Israeli law to keep out undesirables. Surely Krevolin and Bologna — whose past collaboration adapting “King Lear” to a Jewish idiom indicates an interest in fallen kingdoms — will treat us to Lansky questioning his past, or, at the very least, rebutting the charges leveled against him.
The stage is set for the real story of an underworld legend. What truly went on in the days of the Untouchables and the creation of Vegas? And how does someone this articulate and brilliant (“I had a talent with numbers,” he admits modestly) rationalize it all?
But, none of that is forthcoming. Instead, Lansky gets angry at so-called friends Menachem Begin, whom he armed, and Golda Meir, whom he disarmed — and, both of whom shrewdly realized that his was not a ring to be kissed. Even under interrogation by the Israeli appeals court, he offers protestations — “I have never murdered anyone by these hands”; “never been convicted of a felony”; “always been an honest businessman” — but no self-evaluation or basis for us to make our own evaluation.
Tantalizing hints are tossed out but not explored; claims of anti-Semitism are made but not supported. Lansky insists his favorite writer is Shakespeare, but doesn’t say why, or whether he sees anything Shakespearean in his own fate.
He also never explains why he had his first wife institutionalized or how it affected him, and no sooner does he begin to admit complicity in the murder of Bugsy, “my best friend in the whole world,” than he clams up. The law of omerta is expected among real-life mobsters, but it doesn’t play well when it’s used by characters in plays
Burstyn, a superb storyteller and mimic, could play any Lansky put before him. His initial vigor gradually recedes as age and woes pile up, but the actor never loses sight of the character’s resilience. At one point, disgusted with the quality of Israeli pastrami, he forces an audience member to take a bite and agree with him, which affords a brief flash of the chill that the real Lansky must have cast upon associates and civilians alike.
Clearly Krevolin and Bologna (who also serves as the efficient helmer) have done their research. If they had forced their protagonist to look at his life of crime, describe the day-to-day operations and defend his role in them, we could be mesmerized by Burstyn’s Lansky. As their play stands now , however, there is more insight and fascination — and even basic humanity — in five minutes of Lee Strasberg’s Lansky-inspired Hyman Roth in “The Godfather Part II” than in all 80 minutes of “Lansky.”