August 23, 2019

Meyer Lansky, hero and villain, back from the dead and live on stage

When he died peacefully as a retired businessman in Miami on Jan. 15, 1983, the New York Times headlined the sizeable obituary, “Meyer Lansky dead at 81; Financial Wizard of Organized Crime.”

A few paragraphs down, an FBI agent, who had dogged Lansky for decades, expressed his admiration for the acumen of the deceased, saying, “He would have been the chairman of the board at General Motors if he’d gone into legitimate business.”

The story of how young immigrant Meier Suchowljansky became “the financial genius of the underworld” is told in Mike Burstyn’s gripping one-man show, now at the Odyssey Theatre.

The uninterrupted play focuses on one particular episode in Lansky’s later life: his desperate attempt in 1970 to get away from the Feds by moving to Israel and, like any other Jew, claim citizenship under the Law of Return.

For once, Lansky’s ruthless shrewdness, combined with generous donations to the right people, didn’t work. Prime Minister Golda Meir bridled at the thought of the “mafia” infiltrating Israel, and President Nixon let it be known that Uncle Sam would be mightily displeased if Lansky slipped through his fingers.

But in making his case to the Israel Supreme Court (and the audience) as to why he was entitled to stay in the Jewish state, Lansky reviews much of his life.
Sure, he illegally slaked the thirst of the American masses during Prohibition, but so had the respectable Bronfmans and Kennedys, right?

Of course, he had worked hand-in-glove with his boyhood pals, Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel, in running gambling empires in Miami, Cuba and Las Vegas, and sometimes a few folks had to be roughed up, but he personally had never killed a man, not one.

And throughout, he had been a good Jew and patriot. In the 1930s, when the German-American Bund had rallied at Madison Square Garden, he and some of his muscle boys had attended and “persuaded” the Nazis to take to their heels.

After Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. Navy couldn’t figure out how to identify potential saboteurs among longshoremen at New York harbor, Lansky visited his pal Luciano, who ran the docks from his jail cell, and the problem was solved instantly.

How about in 1948, when American munition makers shipped their wares to Arab states while the U.S. government slapped an embargo on supplies to the nascent Jewish state? Who was it that arranged to “divert” some of the ships to Israel, while arms bound for Egypt were mysteriously dumped at sea?

It’s fortunate that Burstyn is not only a compelling actor but has a fabulous memory, because for 90 continuous minutes he is never off the stage, and never stops talking.

“Lansky” is playing at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles through Aug. 19, with evening performances Wednesday through Saturday and weekend matinees.