By Joseph Bologna and Richard Krevolin. Directed by Joseph Bologna. St. Luke's Theatre. Through Apr. 30.
Apart from Backstage's Robert Windeler and AP's Jennifer Farrar, critics are mostly lukewarm to this solo show about the famous Jewish gangster who attempted to rehabilitate his reputation and gain Israeli citizenship in his waning years. They mostly enjoy Mike Burstyn's ingratiating, avuncular performance, but for some that's precisely the problem: How seriously can audiences take Lansky's struggle for self-justification when he's such a lovable old dude?
(Robert Windeler) Mike Burstyn looks and behaves as we feel that master mid-20th-century criminal Meyer Lansky might have looked and acted, admittedly based on sketchy recollection and reading of social history. Director Joseph Bologna, who also co-authored the play with Richard Krevolin, has seen to it that the milieu and movement of Lansky are credible...The design team is helpful in achieving a nearly seamless life story. Especially notable are Christopher Ash's black-and-white projections, which provide sweep, depth, and context to this 90-minute monologue so remarkably embodied by Burstyn.
Associated Press A
(Jennifer Farrar) A subtly monstrous performance by Mike Burstyn brings Meyer Lansky to chilling life...Burstyn's air of bonhomie and jocularity barely masks the ruthless, volatile man beneath the charming surface. Wearing a genial, at times faintly maniacal grin, he chats about his life, starting with his early childhood in Poland where he lived with his parents and grandparents...Burstyn creates an intense, memorable portrait of a fascinating individual with no apparent moral compass. Lansky can claim he is above all a Jew and deserves to live out his life in Israel, but his early and willing embrace of a life of crime can't be absolved by late-stage piety.
(Paulanne Simmons) Focuses not only on Lansky’s darker side but also explores some of his more "philanthropic" adventures—such as his claims to have broken up Nazi meetings, raised money for Israel and diverted armaments that were going to the Arabs so that they ended up either in Israel or the bottom of the sea...Burstyn, a son of Yiddish theater royalty, is a commanding presence. Even under-rehearsed, he engages the audience fluently and amiably...Somehow one still wishes Burstyn’s Lansky was something more than a serious and menacing version of Jackie Mason. In fact, the show works best in those rare moments when Lansky lets the façade of Jewish bonhomie slip and we see him for the ruthless, cynical, self-justifying monster he really was.
(Martin Denton) Burstyn's Lansky holds the audience with assured and easy charm as he spins the various anecdotes that comprise the play...I sensed that the actor, like the character he plays here, is reluctant to be despised by the crowd, and consequently he doesn't quite show us the monstre sacre that the script suggests lurks within the otherwise civilized Lansky. The piece ultimately made me hungry to learn more about Meyer Lansky. He's presented here as having convinced himself that he never broke the law, which has real resonance in a world where the powerful increasingly seem to feel that rules and regulations don't apply to them.
(Andy Propst) Long on charm but short on detail or insight, Richard Krevolin and Joseph Bologna's Lansky...offers up a curiously heartwarming portrait of gangster Meyer Lansky...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...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.
New York Post C-
(Frank Scheck) "Lansky" squanders its opportunity to provide insight into one of the most fascinating characters in the history of American organized crime...Despite Burstyn's sometimes effective efforts to provide darker shadings to his portrayal, he's undercut by the shallowness of the writing, which fails to convey the malevolent grandiosity of the man who once famously declared, "I was bigger than US Steel!"
The New York Times C-
(Wilborn Hampton) Basically a 75-minute apologia for a life of crime...For those who know Lansky only from the movies — the character Hyman Roth, played by Lee Strasberg, in “The Godfather, Part II,” for example, or Ben Kingsley’s portrayal in the film “Bugsy” — Mr. Burstyn’s performance is a puzzle, something of a cross between George Jessel and George Burns...It is only toward the end of the show — when Lansky recalls his father’s disowning him at their final meeting — that the play, and consequently Mr. Burstyn’s performance, comes to life. On the surface “Lansky” is a superficial glamorization of a Mafioso that would make David Chase blush. If the playwrights were aiming for underlying irony, the laughter that greets Lansky’s angry outburst when his Israeli citizenship is denied is a measure of how far they missed their mark.
AP A 13; BS A 13; CU B 10; NYtheatre B 10; TM C+ 8; NYP C- 7; NYT C- 7; 55/6=9.71 (B)