Is Al Pacino’s new Broadway play ‘China Doll’ really that bad?

4 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘China Doll': Theater Review.

In David Mamet’s new play “China Doll,” Al Pacino circles the stage, puttering and muttering in the manner of an adrift and aggrieved Lear. NEW YORK — What are we to make of these bizarre later Broadway endeavors by the man from Chicago who wrote some of the greatest dramas of the 20th century?

“China Doll” is clearing upward of $1 million a week and playing to capacity houses, and while it’s technically not old garbage — it’s David Mamet’s latest play — it’s garbage all the same. “I wrote it for Al,” he said, in a press release. “It is better than oral sex.” It’s not clear whether the latter is referring to “China Doll” itself or the act of writing for Pacino, but something’s lacking in Mamet’s sex life. 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. As terrible as the buzz has been — Pacino struggling with his lines, theatergoers demanding refunds, a delayed opening — the reality is even worse. 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. In a luxurious penthouse he grouses to lawyers, hotel managers and airplane salesmen via Bluetooth, while occasionally deigning to berate his assistant Carson (Christopher Denham, in a thankless role). It’s an intriguing lion-in-winter performance, one that captures both the vanity and tragedy of a giant trying to hang onto his old glory — a subject Pacino presumably knows a bit about himself. Anarchistic jabs of defiance at the hyper-liberal, perpetually self-examining theatrical establishment with its committees, action groups and abiding impotence?

The plot, such as it is, plays out like a bad parody of Mamet at his worst — all tough-guy posturing, secret motives, power plays, violent resolution — and with zero impact. 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. If only Mamet had given him a coherent story and character to work with. “China Doll” arrives on Broadway with more toxic buzz than any show in recent memory — with reports of Pacino being impossible to hear, arguments between the actor and director Pam McKinnon and numerous walkouts at intermission. 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. The reality isn’t nearly that terrible, but Mamet nonetheless seems to have no idea what he’s trying to say here. (And, it should be noted, there were indeed a more-than-usual number of walkouts at the preview I attended.) Whether “China Doll” is actually about old age, or instead about the intersection of politics and money, or how ambition destroys itself — or something else entirely — remains anyone’s guess. 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. Ross never quite says: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in,” but he does say, that he “dragged myself back when all I had to do was walk away” and “It’s just ‘the Old Life.’ Reaching out to drag one back.” (If a play this superfluous can be said to have a theme, this is probably it.) It’s unclear how much Pacino is enjoying the exercise.

With Mickey making one phone call after another to right the situation, the show is essentially a series of monologues — never mind that there’s another person onstage with him, the valiant Christopher Denham, as his young assistant. 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. For reasons that are repeated at least three times, yet still remain vague, the plane is now in Toronto, along with Mickey’s foreign national fiancee — prompting Mickey to engage in an elaborate set of negotiations involving his lawyer, the airplane company and his fiancee.

It is impossible to discern from watching Mamet’s two-character, multi-phone drama, “China Doll,” one of the stranger and more confounding evenings anyone could ever hope to spend on Broadway. 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.

Herewith, a script and production so provocatively dismissive of all that is generally associated with theatrical craft, rule keeping and hive-driven aesthetic understanding that it feels at least partially deliberate. 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. Aside from his owning a plane, dating a much younger floozy and committing tax fraud, the first act doesn’t reveal much about Mickey — or the title, which is never explained.

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. 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. Yet we’re a far ways away from the sly, nerve-jangling elusiveness of earlier Mamet works, like “American Buffalo” or “The Cryptogram” — puzzles that gradually and powerfully revealed themselves. “China Doll,” by contrast, just seems like it’s being made up as it goes along. 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. Most maddeningly, the object of the writer’s satire unclear: Is the play eviscerating billionaires like the Koch Brothers and their ability to singlehandedly fund political campaigns and dictate ideological agendas? It’s wealth.” But Mickey is old enough to be willing to settle for the cold comfort of what Robert Frost called “boughten friendship,” and he is so besotted with her favors that he makes the mistake of paying more attention to his mistress than to his business, at which point the ever-circling sharks smell blood in the water and move in.

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. 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. The only real pleasure here is getting to luxuriate in Pacino’s presence for a couple of hours, listening to the gravelly, up-and-down cadences of that unmistakable voice, and watching him almost succeed in generating pathos out of thin air. There’s a suggestion of a great rivalry between Ross and a governor, the son of his mentor, but this mainly registers as a chance to take shots at politics in general (a couple of these are pretty funny) and liberal politicians in particular.

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. 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. Which brings us to Al Pacino, the star of this endeavor and the main reason why tickets to director Pam MacKinnon’s unfathomable production have flown out the door at premium prices. 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. This iconic American actor is now 75 years old and while his extraordinary panache and singularly distinctive rhetorical style remain hugely entertaining — yes, even here — it is all too evident that the actor is struggling greatly to recall and impart all his lines.

Mamet has dispensed with the flabby discursiveness of “The Anarchist” and is once again coining the bright, hard utterances that are his trademark. You cannot see the screens, but given the way Pacino’s eyes constantly seek out the displays, you can’t help but intuit that the text scrolls thereupon. 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.

Certainly, Pacino does not need to be doing this; he could easily scratch his theatrical itch with a carefully protected cameo and still make his crust. 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. Rather, he behaves on Derek McLane’s penthouse set like a batter swinging wildly and with unlimited outs earned from four decades of improvisational brilliance.

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. This, too, is not the way actors are supposed to behave in an art form that values, well, speaking the lines as penned without the recourse of a script.

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. Presented by 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. 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.

I could prattle on here about the extent to which “China Doll” continues extant Mametian themes — the older hoodlum teaching the younger or the longtime view that you are either an aggressor or a victim in a world with no third way. You could argue that Mickey is like Teach (“American Buffalo”) or Ricky Roma (“Glengarry Glen Ross”) three decades later, when the fast-talker finds himself turning into King Lear, his contacts all dying off as he descends into impotence. This is clearly a play about rhetorical power and mortality, which makes it feel like Mamet and Pacino deliberately dreamed up a project that would have to flounder to make its point.

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