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Jewish Journal

Meyer: Hero or Anti-Hero?

by Naomi Pfefferman

January 9, 2003 | 7:00 pm

"A Jewish friend of mine loves 'The Sopranos,'" Italian American actor Joe Bologna said with a groan. "I told him, 'How'd you like to see a show called "The Goldsteins" about white-collar criminals and the biggest shyster is Izzy Goldstein?"

Bologna isn't about to play Izzy, but he is the co-author and star of a monologue he said breaks ethnic and gangster stereotypes. In "Meyer," he portrays Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky -- previously depicted in films such as "Bugsy" (1991) -- as both a ruthless thug and a pathetic alter-kacker. At the beginning of the play, the character sips Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray Soda and kvetches about Israel denying him citizenship under the Law of Return.

While Bologna usually eschews mobster roles, he was receptive when Richard Krevolin asked him to co-author "Meyer" in the 1990s. The 38-year-old Jewish author ("King Levine") told Bologna he'd interviewed Las Vegas hoteliers who'd described Lansky as "ice-cold" and others who remember him passing out candy while walking his Shih Tzu. He said his fascination with the gangster began when a con-man bilked his Connecticut neighbors by posing as Lansky's nephew around 1980. "This guy played into the Jewish reverence for the tough Jew," Krevolin said. "So I began wondering, was Lansky an American Jewish hero or was he an anti-hero?"

Audience members were so divided on the issue that they screamed at each other after "Meyer's" debut in San Diego several years ago. But Bologna -- best known for writing and performing comic plays with his wife, actress Renee Taylor -- sees the mobster as poignant. Lansky's persona reminds the actor of his gruff father, who also grew up in a cold-water tenement but chose the family shoeshine business over the mob. "Lansky decided not to 'carry a lunch pail' and ultimately paid the price," said Bologna, 67. "And that's tragic. It's Shakespearean."

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