Review Roundup: CHINA DOLL, Starring Al Pacino, Opens on Broadway
‘China Doll’ review: Zero stars for dreadful David Mamet play with Al Pacino.
“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. With his gray mane and gravelly roar, Al Pacino skulks around the stage like an old lion in “China Doll,” David Mamet’s yakking character study of an aging oligarch still trying to intimidate the world despite his declining power.Following the extended preview period, some were sceptical about the show, which has Pacino playing a billionaire named Mickey Ross who is getting ready to join his fiancee in Toronto before an unexpected phone call interrupts his plans.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. The play, which is having its premiere at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, could be interpreted as a commentary on two singular artists, once the kings of their respective jungles, who are now going through the motions of their former majesty.
As terrible as the buzz has been — Pacino struggling with his lines, theatergoers demanding refunds, a delayed opening — the reality is even worse. The qualities that lustrously set them apart are being worn here like the disassembled tux of Pacino’s character — fancy attire for a forgotten function from the night before. 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. 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. Style, emptied of meaning, has devolved into mannerism. “The Anarchist,” Mamet’s last original play to debut on Broadway, sounded like two typewriters clacking at each other. “China Doll” is more of a drone.
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. In both works, the cadences have that distinctive Mamet cut, but Pacino’s whining New York delivery has a plaintive tone even when his words are pummeling.
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. Were the production, directed by Pam MacKinnon, not set in a glamorous apartment designed by Derek McLane to resemble a modern Brentwood or East Hampton palace, I would have suggested an alternative title for the play: “The Kvetcher of Grand Concourse.” Pacino, who won Broadway acclaim for his schleppy Shylock in the 2010 revival of “The Merchant of Venice,” can’t seem to give up his Bronx moan — he repeated it in his portrayal of Shelly Levene in the lumpish 2012 Broadway revival of Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” and he’s adapted the vocal pattern here for the ludicrously loaded Mickey Ross. There has been more than enough evidence in the past to certify that Mr Pacino is a bona fide genius, so let’s assume that there are reasons for what he’s doing here.
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. 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. The Oscar winner dominates every moment of Mamet’s new play, but he’s not alone onstage: Discreetly by his side is Christopher Denham, who plays Carson, Mickey’s well-groomed factotum. Certainly he [Pacino] gravitates toward roles like this and in his prowling posture, bent at the knees, but slightly stooped at the waist, you can read the depredations of old age or the crouch of a fighter, just waiting for his chance to spring.
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. 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. 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.
And when he works himself into high dudgeon, many of the lines feel as though they have quotation marks around them – that he is Al Pacino playing Al Pacino playing Mickey Ross, because that is what the crowd, who applaud loudly at his arrival, ostensibly want. 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. 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. Ross bares his feral nature when he’s describing his payback plans for the idiots who screwed up his careful plans to evade paying US taxes on his new plane.
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?
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. This minor incident, coupled with the fact that the plane’s tail number was changed from Swiss to U.S. registration, is going to saddle Mickey with a $5-million sales tax bill. 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. 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.
He wants to speak to his lawyer, and when the lawyer doesn’t have answers, he demands the governor — whose father, the old governor, is one of his long-standing cronies. 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. 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. 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 demonic mentorship of Carson sparks some memorable exchanges. (Carson: “We should think of business as a sexual transaction?” Mickey: “Only if you want to get rich.”) But the problem with this dramatic through line is that Carson is a cipher, defined mostly by his gleaming suit and slick haircut.
It may be a dopey play that keeps tripping over its MEGO-inducing minutiae, but Pacino delivers every line with relish, with mustard, onions, the works. 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. Mamet has dispensed with the flabby discursiveness of “The Anarchist” and is once again coining the bright, hard utterances that are his trademark. The only character we encounter directly, other than Mickey, is his pearl-gray beanpole of a right-hand man, so suavely deferential it may well be a Downton Abbey joke that his name is Carson.
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. His declaration of war against the governor (“there’s gonna be a twister in a trailer park”) leads him into a vulnerable position with the law, but he can only keep fighting, scheming and manipulating.
That is a coded spoiler of the way the drama culminates, but it’s unlikely this information will ruin your experience of “China Doll” should you get around to seeing it. 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?
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.
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