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Stage Door: Sleepwalk With Me, Lansky

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Nathan Lane is among the producers of Sleepwalk With Me. It's his first foray into producing -- and he's backed a winner. Now playing at the Bleecker Street Theater, Sleepwalk With Me stars Mike Birbiglia, who delivers a hilarious stand-up routine in just over an hour. Quiet and self-effacing, Birbiglia's style is Seinfeldian; he observes situations and relates them with a comic twist -- sans Jerry's confidence. Birbiglia's gift is in the telling.

His manner is seriously low-key; he's not a witty or sassy entertainer; he is an ordinary guy with an extraordinary problem: severe sleepwalking. But he copes with it, utilizing great humor and even grace. By framing the monologue as memoir, he reveals the vulnerability, crazy family dynamics and emotional tensions common to all.

Birbiglia's calm speaks volumes. He charms the audience with a single prop -- a chair -- and a gentle demeanor that belies the pain just beneath the surface. He's a quirky character -- brave enough to consider life as a comedian, yet unable to address potentially lethal problems. How he survives is as much a testament to his fantastically honed sense of humor as his uncanny ability to accept any experience with Zen detachment. Sleepwalk With Me is a terrifically funny show that proves nice guys finish first.

Meyer Lansky, known as a quiet gangster who kept his wife and children away from the business, proves just the opposite. A partner of Charlie "Lucky" Luciano and Bugsy Siegel, Lansky was famous for organizing the Mob and uttering the immortal phrase: "We're bigger than U.S. Steel." Known as the "Little Man," Lansky was a numbers genius; the man who transformed bootlegging and hotel/casinos into a billion-dollar business. Fierce and determined, his story is the basis of Lansky, a one-man play written by Richard Krevolin and Joseph Bologna now at the St. Luke's Theater.

Lansky (Mike Burstyn), who created a gambling empire, liked to boast he had New York, Las Vegas and Havana in his back pocket. But unlike his Italian counterparts, this first-generation American Jew shunned the spotlight. The play opens in Tel Aviv, as he petitions the Israeli High Court to grant him, "a retired businessman from Miami," citizenship. Burstyn relates Lansky's tale as apologia. We may dislike Lansky's path to wealth, but his story is unique in the annals of American Jewish history, a cross-cultural exercise in assimilation and identity.

Lansky came of age on the mean streets of the Lower East Side in the early part of the 20th century. Schooled in crime by Arnold Rothstein, he was known as a brainy tough guy. The Bug and Meyer Gang was among the most violent during Prohibition, but in general, he claimed to prefer bribes to blood feuds. There were notable exceptions. When American Nazis gathered at Madison Square Garden in the 1930s, Lansky and "my boys" beat them up. When German saboteurs on the docks were sinking American ships during the war, the U.S. government asked for Lansky's help -- and he eliminated the problem.

What's interesting about the play is Burstyn's take: Lansky, born in Poland, where "even the dirt was anti-Semitic" will not capitulate. He wants to achieve the American Dream -- and he wants to play by his own rules. At turns sympathetic, angry, intimidating and mournful, Burstyn gives us a glimpse of a smart, driven man torn between the Old World and the New. Lansky may be the most shadowy underworld figure, but in Burstyn's capable hands, he's a compelling one.