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Mike Burstyn Landscapes Meyer Lansky's Soul

March 5, 2009 By:
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Meyer Lansky could eat Kuni Leml for lunch and have enough room left over for a pastrami on rye with a dab of mustard.

Lucky for Mike Burstyn that his body of work embodies both the sinister and the simpleton, as the winner of two Israeli Oscar equivalents for "Kuni Leml" is kindling the fired-up mobster Lansky on stage these days at the St. Luke's Theater, a seemingly unorthodox off-Broadway venue for a Jewish crime king who made a killing in the illicit.

Burstyn elicits his life and times, limning a major segment of the syndicate sinner born Majer Suchowlinsky in Belarus, a numbers-runner and front-runner who ran with such legends as Luciano and Costello, and was bugged by but befriended, if ultimately betraying, a compadre in crime known as Bugsy.

But the man who made a mint running gambling operations from Florida to Fidel's Cuba -- indeed, on assuming power, Castro kicked Lansky out of the country in 1960 and with it his Riviera resort -- put his money and his sense of menschhood on Israel, where he hoped to make aliyah in 1970.

Lansky rolled the die only to watch his dream die out; he had bet on booze, coins and dollars, but had never come up against a currency such as Golda; Meir made sure that Israel's Law of Return returned to kick him in the rear, forbidding him residency in the land of milk and honey.

It is here where Burstyn bursts into the audience, beginning "Meyer Lansky" on the eve of what would evolve into his rejection from Israel, as the "Little Man" with big ambitions hosts a party for friends awaiting word on whether or not his passport to a new life would pass muster with Israelis.

From Havana to "Hava Nagilah," Lansky had decided to have his remaining days spent in the camel lot that was his calling. As committed as he was to being married to the mob, Lansky loved the land of his landsmen, and had funneled millions of dollars into Israel's treasury, treasuring it as his true homeland.

So, he figures and fumes over drinks before his invited audience at St. Luke's, why wouldn't Eretz Yisrael accept this ersatz accountant to the crooks as one of its own?

Tall and talented, the suave and sophisticated Burstyn gives much stature to the 5-footer he portrays on stage with a calm mien that controls the mean streets paved inside Lansky's landscaped soul, always ready to detour into destruction.

Burstyn is rat-a-tat riveting in the role of a man whose past Israel would not allow godfather status to in fear that he would make it a new base of operations for his opportunistic skills.

Burstyn, a veteran of Yiddish theater -- son of the enduring late legends Lillian Lux and Pesach Burstein -- who was not so much born in a trunk as lugged it along, debuting on stage at the age of 3, borrows from past performances to land Lansky as three-dimensional and not just demonic.

After all, the actor -- who was Broadway's balancing act of "Barnum" and coughed up a cool comic performance in a tour of "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife" -- had good training treading the Broadway boards as the reviled Roy Cohn, a hiss-of-a-man and Joe McCarthy's sidekick, in "Inquest."

"Roy or Meyer?" Burstyn weighs the evil that men do. "Roy, definitely," as winner of the wicked. "Roy Cohn was more vicious."

Indeed, he likens Lansky to more of a "tough guy" than one-man torture chamber.

An Askenazi Soprano? More the tenor of the times: "Lansky was a product of his childhood," says Burstyn of the Lower East Sider, who raised his profile years later as a member of the Jewish Mafia but never lost his roots to the Italian/Sicilian crowd.

Hail, hail, the gangsters are all here: Indeed, it was Lucky Luciano who likened Lansky to a good-luck charm, reportedly noting, "I used to tell Lansky that he may've had a Jewish mother, but someplace he must've been wet-nursed by a Sicilian."

On stage, Burstyn milks a somewhat soppy script for maybe more than it's worth. But the evenhanded portrayal bursts into a machine-gun menace near play's end that reveals the flint-stoned soul that sparked a life of crime.

Guilty as charged? "He did what he felt needed to be done; he made his choices." And Israel made its choices. "What he wanted more than anything was to be buried there," says the actor of the gangster.

But he was entombed by his past. "And when he retired [to Florida], he tried legitimate businesses, but never succeeded," dying in 1983.

Others, too, have succeeded in capturing his essence: Ben Kingsley played the crime king in "Bugsy"; Patrick Dempsey evoked the ghost in "Mobsters"; and Dustin Hoffman graduated from drop-out to take-charge, going gangbusters as Lansky in "The Lost City."

What was not lost on Oscar voters was Lee Strasberg's incendiary portrayal of Hyman Roth, the raffish wraith-like Lansky of "The Godfather Part II" (1974), which captured a golden statue for the acclaimed actor/teacher.

Time magazine reported that Lansky called Strasberg, praising his performance with a lighthearted lesson for the famous head of the Actors Studio: "You did good. Now why couldn't you have made me more sympathetic?"

The Richard Krevolin and Joseph Bologna script -- Bologna also directed the production at St. Luke's -- takes him at his word. Lansky is one man who Burstyn knew he could do one-on-one on stage: "I always wanted to do a one-man show," says the actor who's merged his many talents in musicals and dramas in the past and whose international bio bulges with credits in his New York, Dutch and Israeli homes.

If Lansky was conviction-proof, "Lansky" isn't critic-proof. "The critics claim they don't see enough of the tough guy on stage, but," says the actor who plays him, "there was so much more to the man."

After all, Lansky was a businessman -- so what if that business meant mayhem as a member of Murder Inc.? (Much research suggests that Lansky was one of the founders of the crime syndicate, albeit Burstyn says his readings suggest otherwise.)

"I watched clips of him being interviewed on Israeli TV and watched his mannerisms" as a study guide.

"He had a wonderful sense of humor; he would have been pleased being portrayed the way I'm doing it."

He's not the only one; Lansky kinder came to see Burstyn and had kind words. "Two of his nieces came to see the show and introduced themselves to me. They said I'm more handsome than their uncle," he chuckles, "but what I was showing was so true to life."

Truly, what brought him to Lansky of Las Vegas fame, he wouldn't mind staying with for a while. After all, the part plays so much into his protean talents, is it any wonder the actor took it when proffered? "It was," reasons Burstyn, "an offer I couldn't refuse." 

 

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