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Mike Burstyn delivers a surprisingly genial performance as gangster Meyer Lansky in this middling monodrama. logo
Mike Burstyn in Lansky
(© Cyona Burstyn)
Long on charm but short on detail or insight, Richard Krevolin and Joseph Bologna's Lansky, now at St. Luke's Theatre, offers up a curiously heartwarming portrait of gangster Meyer Lansky (Mike Burstyn), the man who is widely believed to have, among other things, ordered the hit on his associate Bugsy Siegel.

This monodrama takes place in the early 1970s in an Israeli restaurant (rendered with elegance and economy by scenic designer Josh Iacovelli) where Lansky is waiting for an all-important phone call. He's hoping that he's been granted Israeli citizenship, which would allow him to avoid potential prosecution by U.S. federal authorities. While he's biding his time, he chats about his life with the intimates whom he's gathered around him.

The framework that the authors have created for their play proves to be its undoing on many levels. As they need to keep the dramatic tension about the pending call high, the piece darts back and forth in time often confusingly. (Nonetheless, it is illustrated beautifully by Christopher Ash's projection design.) Also, as Lansky is not in a position to be completely open about his "professional activities," much of what makes his life interesting -- the casinos he built in Vegas, Cuba and Florida, his ties to organized crime -- are left exceedingly vague.

For instance, he announces that with the advent of Prohibition, he went to a crony and announced he wanted to be in the bootlegging business. It's a moment of obvious pride, but theatergoers with any sort of curiosity will want to know more, even if it's just an extended anecdote like the one he shares about how as a kid he meets a bullying teenager who will ultimately become a long-time friend, "Lucky" Luciano.

Introspection and expression of true emotion are also kept to a minimum, with one notable exception -- which proves to be the play's highpoint: a charged confrontation between Lansky and his father, which results in an irreparable rift between the two men. Here, character and performer become visibly shaken, as is the audience.

As Lansky, Burstyn -- best known for his work in the Yiddish theater -- is warm, gentlemanly and genuinely charismatic, but only sporadically commanding or menacing. In fact, during much of the play it feels more like one is spending time with one's grandfather or favorite uncle. While we might expect to be hearing from Tony Soprano, we get Tevye the Milkman instead.

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