Broadway Review: Al Pacino in David Mamet’s ‘China Doll’
‘China Doll’ review: Zero stars for dreadful David Mamet play with Al Pacino.
NEW YORK — Nobody reaches a boiling point with more gleefully righteous ferocity than Al Pacino, a facility he — and we — can still count on, in his 75th year on the planet. If the expiration date on Donald Trump’s turn in the political arena should arrive any time soon, and he wants to try his hand at another kind of acting, there’s a vehicle tailor-made for his blustery shtick in David Mamet’s new play, China Doll. As Mickey Ross, the cranky gazillionaire of David Mamet’s awkward new tragicomedy, “China Doll,” Pacino prowls the stage of Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, barking into a bluetooth and muttering crude threats in New Yorkese such as, “He wants to f— with me, there’s gonna be a twister in a trailer park!” Pacino retains the leonine power to carry a show, even if, with this expository mountain of a part, he glances at regular intervals into the wings, giving the impression that he is searching there for Mickey’s next utterance. In fact, during the boring parts — and yes, there’s no shortage of them in this windy anecdote about the clash between one-percent arrogance and political opportunism — it’s mildly entertaining to imagine Trump vomiting indignation as besieged moneybags Mickey Ross.
And in creating a two-hour, two-man play in which Mickey is on the phone for most of it, reciting the minute details of a convoluted plot, Mamet has done neither Pacino nor the paying customers any favors. In the meantime, Al Pacino, for whom the role was written, huffs and puffs his way through a performance that remains oddly tentative despite all the showboating mannerisms. Denham — a young man with, I sincerely hope, a very resilient nervous system — is one of a cast of two in “China Doll,” the saggy new play by David Mamet that was finally opened to critics on Wednesday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, and he is onstage for almost the entire show. A smug but pointless exercise stretched over two hours and enlivened only by the occasional incisive political zinger, Mamet’s latest is an improvement over his last new work to premiere on Broadway, the bloodless 2012 dramatized pamphlet, The Anarchist.
But even with Al Pacino putting him through his emotional paces, this tarnished titan is going through hell in a vacuum, with no one to play off but unheard voices on the other end of the telephone. Mamet’s last play, crashed and burned three years ago, closing on Broadway after 17 performances, while the one that preceded it in 2009, “Race,” was good enough but not up to form. He’s poised to run away from his dog-eat-dog existence — “Walking away with the brass ring and the pretty girl,” he says — but his new jet has been impounded. Now please cue sound effects of chalk scratching on countless blackboards and the ping, ping, ping of an endlessly dripping faucet, and you have some idea of what Mr.
His acquisitions include a bullied assistant (Christopher Denham), a pampered, unseen fiancee half his age and, just as crucially, a new $60 million private jet. It would be pleasing to report that the negative buzz during previews was exaggerated, and that China Doll generates sparks in the reteaming of playwright and star. That he’s attempting to take ownership of the plane without paying $5 million in state taxes — a sum that the governor’s vindictive son, who’s now in the governor’s mansion himself, is seeking to recoup as political revenge — is the play’s requisite Mametian hinge. Pacino is, at this point in his career, unable to be anything but Pacino, equal parts “Hoo-ah!” from “Scent of a Woman” and the satanic figure in “Devil’s Advocate.” He’s a glib, profane, funny bully. (But when he talks to his lady friend, a wonderful tender, weakness emerges.) Otherwise, Pacino is predictably unpredictable: You never know when he’ll handle something with menace or mockery. But this is a far-fetched scenario whose scant credibility escapes it like air out of an unknotted balloon, landing with a splat in a preposterous ending that doesn’t work at all.
Prime shredding candidates range from whichever hapless Swiss functionary changed the registration tag of his new plane to the head of the company who built this one-of-a-kind work of art. Of the plays opening on Broadway this fall, none have had a more fraught back story than “China Doll,” though it was always guaranteed to be a commercial slam dunk. But the whys and wherefores of Mickey’s expensive new toy and travel plans, recounted with numbing specificity, have none of the tawdry resonance of the shady deals of past Mamet plays, whether those involved movies (“Speed-the-Plow”) or real estate (“Glengarry Glen Ross”) or even rare coins (“American Buffalo”).
I can’t yet tell you whether it has the legs of “American Buffalo” or “Glengarry Glen Ross,” but I do know that I want to see it again—and while I believe Mr. He drags out syllables to their breaking point and hurls verbal grenades that sound as innocuous as “Well, I had a vision.” The only other character is Ross’ assistant, played with deference and efficiency by Christopher Denham, who schedules incoming and outgoing calls. That appears to matter little at the box office, however, where the Mamcino combination has once again proved a potent draw, as it did in the underpowered 2012 revival of Glengarry Glen Ross. The concept that seems to have tickled the playwright — setting virtually the entire drama at one end of a ringing phone — proves not so much inventive as tedious.
Pacino does a deft job of juggling them, using a Bluetooth headpiece. (In one preview, when the handover was bobbled, Pacino seamlessly recovered and cheerfully add-libbed into the earpiece, “Ruby, I didn’t know where you were.”) Ross uses pauses in the frantic phone conversation to teach his eager younger assistant about how business and politics really work. (“There’s a lot of foolish people out there — many of them vote,” is one nugget that gets a big applause.) But all that talk of tail numbers has undermined any rising rhythm between the two men. That production delayed its opening night by a month to hold off tepid reviews, while this one extended its preview period by just a fortnight to continue tinkering. Pacino has always gravitated toward bad guys — those Shylocks hated and shunned by the rest of society — finding the warm, beating heart that escapes everyone else’s notice. Rather than the imagination being ignited, your reflexive impatience with someone who keeps you waiting while they finish an overlong call is what kicks in here.
Much has been written in theater gossip columns about Pacino having trouble with his lines in a play that’s essentially a series of monologues, with interruptions from a secondary character that serve as prompts. And though Mickey’s towering arrogance ultimately explodes in dramatic self-destruction, the play’s dreadfully clumsy ending reduces all that has preceded it to a stilted joke. Pacino plays Mickey Ross, an immensely rich businessman and behind-the-scenes political donor who has taken unto himself a much younger mistress who never appears onstage and whom he will pay any price to please. Pacino, he’s one of the last of a breed of scenery-munching titans who came of age in the 1970s, sons of Brando who turned Method into irresistible madness both on screen and onstage. Long past his prime, he knows exactly why she’s interested in him and admits it to Carson ( Christopher Denham), his protégé-flunky: “Is it youth or beauty?
Mamet talks down to his audience, clubbing us over the head with our colossal stupidity for resenting the obscenely wealthy when the play suggests it’s the hypocritical liberal politicos whose Machiavellian shenanigans truly deserve our contempt. Denham’s tightly-wound Carson comes across as little more than a device and “China Doll” as nothing more consequential than an occasion to let Pacino be Pacino. A self-made man in the Sheldon Adelson mode, Mickey has mislaid his plane, his gorgeous British fiancee Frankie, and his pilot en route from Switzerland — where the factory-fresh top-of-the-line jet was purchased — to Toronto. In Ross’s case, that humanizing factor is his love for the young fiancee who is stranded in Toronto while he uses every trick in the book to free his impounded plane so they can fly off to be married.
Pacino have been around long enough that baby boomer ticket buyers (and they’re the ones with the dough) remember when these guys were the coolest, gutsiest cats in the room. This is, of course, a quintessentially Mametian situation, and it’s also a promising subject for a play, especially in our gaudy age of super-wealth.
Mamet, who in his previous plays has taken what I think could fairly be called a suspicious view of women, paints Mickey not as a victim of their wiles but as a Lear-like titan whose problems spring from within himself. Mickey’s first guess is the company that sold him the luxury aircraft; he claims that since he hadn’t officially accepted delivery, it’s their problem. On his own, Pacino can handle Mickey’s lightning mood changes and even charm (and con) us into admiring the kind of ruthless capitalist who makes his millions of dollars by victimizing millions of citizens.
But a call to an old political crony, whose son is now state governor, reveals that the manipulative scion needs an “issue” for his campaign platform, and exposing the tax evasion of the super-rich is a perfect fit for his agenda. Pacino, he is seedy, vulnerable and unexpectedly weak, a kill-or-be-killed type who appears (at least at first) to have lost his edge and now wants to withdraw from the zero-sum hell of perpetual competition and “sing like birds i’ th’ cage” with his beautiful china doll—only to find that it’s too late to stop now. Threats follow, including pointed mention of an incriminating file on the governor, as Mickey’s dream of leaving behind the dirty business of politics to follow his heart dissolves. Such a tour de force is not beyond his capabilities; but let’s face it, that’s the job of a playwright committed to writing a legitimate play, instead of phoning it in.
In a pandering nod to Pacino fans, he even paraphrases his famous Godfather: Part III quote in a consoling phone call to the distressed Frankie: “Babe, it’s just ‘the Old Life.’ Reaching out to drag one back.” Exactly how Mickey’s political adversaries coordinated the circumstances by which they ensnare the wily squillionaire doesn’t bear thinking about, since any consideration of the complex international strategic connections involved makes Mamet’s half-baked plot logic crumble. A Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Jam Theatricals, Caiola Productions, Dominion Pictures, Gutterman & Winkler, Barbara Freitag & Company / Catherine Schreiber & Company, Patty Baker, Ronald Frankel, Rebecca Gold, Greenleaf Productions, Meg Herman, Kathleen K. Mamet has dispensed with the flabby discursiveness of “The Anarchist” and is once again coining the bright, hard utterances that are his trademark.
Not that poor Carson gets to utter any of them, for Mickey does virtually all of the talking, and much of it is as pungent as anything his creator has given us: “I’m not saying it’s your fault—I’m saying it’s your problem.” “I’m gonna give you back to the gypsies. Director Pam MacKinnon mostly just stays out of Pacino’s way as he shuffles about the stage — incessantly gesticulating, pacing and dispensing familiar tics while exploding into periodic fits of pique. Although the actor as always is a unique stage animal, he’s giving a lazy performance without much heart, fostering a more consistent connection with his Bluetooth earpiece than with the audience. (Michael Shannon pulled off a role not unlike this with greater emotional range in Craig Wright’s similarly structured play, Mistakes Were Made.) Pacino is most effective in his moments of interaction with Carson, largely because Denham (best known for Argo, and the WGN America series Manhattan) works hard to build the thankless role into a character.
He mans the phone bank while ducking Mickey’s verbal blows with seeming imperviousness and absorbing every word that spills from his employer’s mouth. But Mamet’s script lets him down by fumbling the transfer when the assistant momentarily gets the upper hand in plot developments that are still a few drafts away from being stage-ready.
The playwright’s usual unapologetic misogyny — expressed here via Mickey’s matter-of-fact assessment of Frankie as a gold digger, endorsing her choice of wealth as a beautiful woman’s best avenue of protection — just feels pat. And while Mickey’s arc takes him from peaks of belligerent entitlement to valleys of superficial humility and atonement, the play musters no pathos around him. Mamet acknowledges that Mickey’s a rascal, but nonetheless appears to like the guy a lot, indulging the character with repetitious justifications as he attempts to screw the IRS, ride roughshod over the government, and bully anyone who doesn’t give him what he wants. Pacino himself no longer quite equal to the fearful demands of mastering the two-hour-long script of what is for all intents and purposes a one-and-a-half-man play?
But, coming from a playwright who built his career on pitiless examinations of masculinity, power and ruthlessness, Mickey ultimately makes for wearisome company. And it could be argued that “China Doll” is a portrait of the Mamet-style scrappy urban warrior in winter, who has reached the age when a blustering nonstop show of virility requires more energy than he can now muster. In his best moments he’s as richly characterful as ever, but I’ll be curious to see whether “China Doll,” whose first act sometimes feels a bit slack, makes a different impression when Mickey is played by another actor. His concentration never flags, and when he finally gets to step into the spotlight at evening’s end, he does it so effortlessly that you want to cheer. He inhabits what looks like a custom-designed beach house in the Hamptons or Malibu, though it turns out to be (I think) a Manhattan apartment. (Derek McLane did the set.) Besides, he’s wearing a tuxedo, so he must have just come from some fancy gala.
Pacino up in the first act, and I’d also like to know whether she felt, as I did, that he fails to bring off the shocking coup de théâtre that closes the play. Yet when those words assemble into semi-coherent shape, we are asked to infer that Mickey is one tough kahuna, someone with the power to dictate to corporations and governments. It seems there are problems with taxes on the plane, partly because of the numbers painted on its tail, and partly because it touched down on American soil when it was being flown to Canada, where Mickey’s fiancée is waiting.
We gather he is talking to, variously, that lovely young fiancée; a Swedish plane manufacturer; a lawyer, and someone he calls Ruby, a former crony who is close to the Governor of the state, whose father (a former Governor) was Mickey’s mentor. Pacino’s mumbling is really hard work. (The person with whom I saw the show, a discerning theatergoer, hadn’t figured out even that much.) And now I have a headache. This rapid-fire approach also has the advantage of keeping the onstage adrenaline level high, and of blinding us to discrepancies and holes in the plot.
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