At a certain point in a one-man play currently running at an off-Broadway theater in New York, the charming character's genial, joking monologue turns to the impossibility of finding a good pastrami sandwich in Tel Aviv. Holding up a plate with a suspect sandwich, the actor all but holds his nose. How can it be, he demands, that the Jewish state can't produce acceptable Jewish deli meat?
The audience chuckles. The actor then breaks through the theatrical fourth wall, steps off the tiny stage and offers the plate to an audience member sitting in the first row."Taste it," the actor says. "See if I'm telling the truth."
The theater-goer shyly demurs. But the actor will have none of that. "Taste the sandwich," he insists, his voice rising. Then, in a sudden burst of fury, he commands: "I SAID TASTE THE SANDWICH!"
Startled and shaken, the man in the audience complies.
The actor's furious outburst is an inspired coup de theatre, at once unexpected, disconcerting and chilling. The performer after all is Mike Burstyn, long renowned on stage and screen as a sweet-tempered, even cuddly comedian and song-and-dance man. But his real-life character is Meyer Lansky, a notorious American Jewish gangster believed by many to be the original organizer of organized crime, the mastermind behind such Mafia institutions as the Syndicate and Murder, Inc.
The 80-minute play, entitled simply "Lansky," was written by Richard Krevolin and Joseph Bologna and directed by Bologna. A Hebrew version of the play was mounted at Tel Aviv's Cameri Theater a few years ago, and when Burstyn was in Israel in 2006 for a celebration marking the 40th anniversary of his first "Kuni Leml" film (a comedy series now viewed as something of a landmark in Israeli cinema), director Yoel Zilberg suggested to the American-Israeli actor that he consider doing an English-language version of the play.
"It was a surprising and, of course, intriguing suggestion," Burstyn told The Report in a recent phone interview. "I mean, for me to play such a controversial character. But we went to work on it, myself and the writers. I did a lot of research. I really became fascinated by Lansky. After about a year, we had ourselves a script."
Burstyn previewed "Lansky" last year in Los Angeles, where it had an extended run of 13 weeks, then transferred it this year to Manhattan's St. Luke's Theater on West 46th Street, where it opened to good reviews. The actor says plans for a national tour are in the works, with Chicago, Detroit and Miami as likely venues.
The play is set in a Tel Aviv restaurant in 1971. At that point in his career, Lansky was nearing 70 (Burstyn is 54) and was seeking to settle permanently in Israeli and to acquire Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.Lansky's application for citizenship became a matter of inflamed national debate that continued for over two years. One side held the view that every Jew has the right to become an Israeli. The other side maintained that Lansky was merely trying to avoid federal prosecution in the United States on charges of income tax evasion, racketeering, money-laundering and possibly worse, and that the Jewish state had no business being a haven for fugitives from justice. Israel, it was said, was also concerned that admitting Lansky might jeopardize its political and military aid from the United StatesDespite Lansky's arguments that he was merely a "retired businessman" and, in fact, had given much material aid to the nascent State of Israel, the Israeli Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Lansky's presence in Israel constituted a danger to the public and he was ordered out of the country. Meanwhile, the United States had withdrawn Lansky's passport, with the result that Lansky's efforts to seek refuge in Paraguay, Argentina, Panama, Switzerland and elsewhere were in vain. Lansky reportedly offered bribes of up to $1 million to numerous immigration authorities but found no takers.
Defeated, the wandering Jew and his wife reluctantly returned to their condo in Miami. He was immediately arrested and then released on $250,000 bond, which the mobster handed over in cash. Lansky was tried on various charges but the jury failed to convict, largely because of the unreliability of the chief prosecution witness, a former Mafia figure. Other charges were dropped because of extended legal wrangling and because of Lansky's poor health. Lansky died in 1983 at the age of 81.
Mike is sympathetic to Meyer. "First of all," he said, "I can't play a character I don't care about. I once played the villainous lawyer Roy Cohn in a Broadway play called 'Inquest.' It was about the Rosenbergs, and Cohn was a truly nasty individual. But he was a human being, with human failings, and that's the same way I feel about Lansky. I never met Lansky, but I did see him from time to time when he was holding court at the Café Dan in Tel Aviv. He was a weary old Jew, in poor health. He wanted to be buried in Israel, for heaven's sake. I think Israel should have allowed him to stay. Whatever his past, he was retired. Besides, there's little evidence that he ever had any blood on his hands."
Yet some observers maintain that lack of evidence is simply testimony to a highly circumspect operator who was careful never to leave fingerprints at the scene of his crimes. Indeed, one of the few things that Lansky biographers and others agree on is that Meyer Lansky was exceedingly shrewd and smart. Born in Grodno, Byelorussia, as Maier Suchowljansky, Lansky was taken to the United States in 1911 by his impoverished parents, who settled in New York's Lower East Side. In his youth, the feisty, undersized Lansky formed lifelong friendships with future underworld lords like Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel and Charles "Lucky" Luciano. He soon attracted the attention - and the all-important endorsement - of Arnold Rothstein, a New York crime kingpin widely reputed to be the man who had fixed the 1919 World Series.
Little Meyer immediately dazzled everyone with his considerable mathematical skills, which he used to beat the odds in neighborhood crap games. He would later apply such talents to other forms of gambling and ultimately to his casino interests, both legal and not, in Saratoga Springs, New Orleans, Las Vegas, Miami, the Bahamas and Cuba. (Lansky reportedly lost some $14 million in gambling interests in 1959 when Fidel Castro overthrew the eminently corrupt Fulgencio Batista and shut all the gambling dens. Lansky's brother Jake managed Havana's notorious Nacional Casino Hotel.)
Over the years Lansky would be suspectedof, among other things, skimming casino profits, loan-sharking, conspiracy, bankrolling prostitution and drug dealing, bootlegging, illegal involvement in union funds, stock manipulation, money laundering via legitimate businesses and shell companies and, not least, the contract killings of such mob figures as Sal Marazano, Giuseppe Masseria, Albert Anastasia and, reportedly with deep regret, his boyhood pal Bugsy Siegel. U.S. Senate investigators believed that at the very least, Lansky was the overall chief accountant for the mob. According to whose version you choose to believe, at the time of his death, he was either broke (Lansky's claim) or in possession of some $300 million squirreled away in secret Swiss accounts. At least one biographer believed Lansky had so much swag to stash that he even established his own Swiss bank.
To bolster his efforts at winning Israeli citizenship, Lansky simultaneously played down his unsavory reputation (in truth he had only a single gambling conviction against him, for which he had served a two-month sentence) and played up what he insisted was his clandestine service to the cause of Jewish independence. He claimed it was the pogroms he had witnessed as a child in Grodno and the unremitting anti-Semitism in the United States that had made him a fighter - and an admirer of other Jews who stood up for themselves.