at the Odyssey Theatre
Fashioned by Richard Krevolin and Joseph Bologna (also director), Mike Burstyn's solo work comes over as an attempt at a comic demurrer, cleaned up into a twisted tell-all biography of one of America's less-than-upright citizens, Meyer Lansky, a sought-after gangster who outfoxed his pursuers. Burstyn is a Jewish funnyman, reminiscent of the old-time comedians who "hammed it up," you should pardon the expression, on the Borscht circuit in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. His Yiddish shtick is familiar and dated; he has only to use a familiar Yiddish expression or mention Dr. Brown's Celery Tonic to be deluged with easy laughter from a partisan audience.
The combination of Burstyn's comic style and a chunk of nonhistory creates a portrait of a misunderstood genius who worked only for the good of the Jews—it says here—and was an exceptional businessman with the highest moral standards. Relishing the fawning glorification of a criminal, Burstyn's Lansky gives the impression of believing his own notices, smarmily reinterpreting the validity of his cause, which was, the gangster insists, all about humanity and human services. Those lesser folks who were maimed and/or brutally banished on the mobster's path to power were myths in the closet, soldiers of fortune who didn't have the ultimate goods—including his father, whom he cast off when he was 19; his daughter, a drug addict; and his best friend, Bugsy Siegel, who somehow got dead when he crossed Lansky.
Burstyn's characterization presents a model of self-referential rectitude; stickily sentimental about Israel; anxious, toward the end of his life, to call on the Right of Return to become an Israeli citizen and incidentally escape the long arm of American law. Despite Lansky's well-paid government contacts and his costly "clean" reputation, he was refused Israeli citizenship because of his unsavory record during his 50 years of living outside the law in America.
Krevolin and Bologna have made a dubious hero out of a dangerous gangster. The script is lightweight and silly in places, made for easy laughter at others. The late-life sentimentality is cloying and unbelievable in Burstyn's "lovable" gangster, a character straight out of the "Myths and Legends of Organized Crime" comic-book series. Believability is not an option here, nor is entertainment, except at a very simplistic level.
Presented by Kit Productions and Dan Israely at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. Wed.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Jun. 21-Aug. 25. (310) 477-2055. www.odysseytheatre.com.
Reviewed by Madeleine Shaner