New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

St. Luke's Theatre, Manhattan

Although I have connected with actor Mike Burstyn many times in his illustrious career, one memorable occasion stays in my mind. It involved Burstyn as well as his parents (Pesach Burstein and Lillian Lux, one-time stars of the Yiddish theater).

At the time I served on the “Goldie” committee, which was mandated to pick the best of New York Jewish theater and give awards accordingly. For the annual event, we critics (which included several reviewers of Jewish publications and a New York Times critic) had invited Pesach Burstein to be our guest speaker. Quite elderly at the time, he rose to speak…and never stopped! A theater man to his very depths, he could not relinquish the stage. “Get him off!” Lillian Lux hissed to her son Mike, as Pesach droned on. Though Mike managed this with grace and charm, it was fortunate Pesach had his last moments in the sun. It proved to be his valedictory, as he died a few months later.

Mike Burstyn would continue his own theatrical journey, starring in such New York shows as “Barnum” and “The Rothschilds” and garnering numerous awards along the way. Over the years his phenomenal career has spanned film and television, as well as theatre (musicals and straight plays), both here and abroad, in mainstream and Jewish theater.

And now Burstyn has returned to the New York stage in a one-man show. This time around he takes on the persona of a noted Mafia personality--Meyer Lansky—dubbed “the little man” by some and the brains behind organized crime by others. The man was undoubtedly brilliant, a whiz with figures, politics and organization. As one FBI agent put it, “He would have been the chairman of the board at General Motors if he’d gone into legitimate business.”

Somewhat older, heavier and grayer than when I had last seen him, Burstyn still takes command of the stage—and the audience—with ease. As Lansky, he moves down into the audience to greet theatergoers personally. From then on, Burstyn/Lansky offers one long apologia for Lansky’s career. He is not a gangster, certainly not a killer, he insists, damning all commentary in the press as a pack of lies. “I am just a retired businessman,” he insists.

Despite Burstyn’s charisma and the dramatic quality of Lansky’s life, the piece proves to be dull. Had the writers chosen to put the many characters in Lansky’s life directly on stage (which actor Burstyn could have handled effectively, switching easily from character to character), the piece would have been far more exciting. Unfortunately, it remains one long monologue—one voice, one life, one harangue.

Directed by Joseph Bologna and co-written by Bologna with Richard Krevolin (based on an original story by Robert Rockaway), it is the Lansky story from Lansky’s point of view. This 75-minute non-stop show takes place in Tel Aviv 1971. Lansky is trying desperately spend his final years in Israel, citing his rights under the Law of Return. He is, above all, a Jew with a love for Israel, he claims. Moreover, he had given Israel critical help in its War of Independence and the Yom Kippur War (dealing directly with Golda Meir), he insists. He comes on like a steam roller, demanding to speak directly to Golda, but, even in this final phone call, he is rejected and deported.

Lansky’s life, in fact, remains shrouded in mystery, and is open to all interpretations. Was he the brains behind organized crime—or merely an accountant who crunched figures for the gangsters? Did he organize the several warring families into one syndicate? Was he a multi-millionaire, with money stashed away in foreign banks—or merely scraping by? Was he a loving family man, a good Jew, or a ruthless operator who ordered killings as needed? Lansky would, in fact, never be convicted or imprisoned, but would live out his final days in Miami.

Who was the real Meyer Lansky? Will the truth ever be known? Whatever the answer, the play which truly dramatizes his life, giving it the dramatic intensity it deserves, has yet to be written. When that time comes, Mike Burstyn may be just the man to put it on stage.

-- Irene Backalenick
Jan. 29, 2009

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