Al Pacino Thrashes a “China Doll”

Al Pacino in China Doll. Photos by Jeremy Daniel.

By the time it finally opened last week, China Doll had already suffered through some of the worst buzz of any Broadway production in memory. Truth is, David Mamet has written a tense and involving one-act play. Trouble is, he’s written it as a two-act play.

Much of the buzz centered around rumors that audience-magnet star Al Pacino was having trouble learning his lines. The producers eventually had to promote the fact that he’d mastered them. Perhaps Pacino’s issue was a function of the actor’s intuitive understanding that he shouldn’t need to memorize so much extraneous Mamet gab.

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Looking frumpy in days-old business clothes (by costumer Jess Goldstein), Pacino plays Mickey Ross. When the curtain rises, he’s discovered pacing around a modern office (by set designer Derek McLane) overlooking Manhattan where he verbally abuses his assistant, Carson (Christopher Denham) regarding two matters that he feels are extremely important. One is the whereabouts of a jet for which he’s paid $60 million. The other is the whereabouts of his much younger fiancée, Frankie Pierson.

Both are supposedly in Toronto, or nearby. The upstanding, deferential Carson has accurate information on both, but Mickey refuses to accept what he’s told — that the plane, having come from Russia, has acquired a U.S. registration number, and that Frankie is in a Toronto hotel. When he stops fulminating long enough for Carson to speak more than a few syllables, he learns that Frankie is registered in that hotel as Ann Black and so is definitely at the hotel, and that the plane was indeed given a U.S. registration number. This is someone’s idea of a courtesy.

By turns volatile and apologetic, Mickey alternates between ordering Carson around and making phone calls to associates. It becomes clear that he’s attempting to evade a $5 million tax assessment on the plane — if the U.S. registration holds.

The first act thus shuffles along as Pacino, all hyperkinetic nerves, shuffles about. The implication is that we’re being treated to another Mamet character study of another brazen business operator. Indeed, Mickey Ross is the latest in a long line that includes Bobby Gould of Speed-the-Plow and Tony Roma of Glengarry Glen Ross.

Christopher Denham and Pacino.
Christopher Denham and Pacino.

If ticket buyers return for the second act without much confidence that Mamet will add anything substantial to all this, they will be pleasantly surprised to find that the stakes are raised. Not that it occurs immediately after the curtain rises again, but in time Mickey’s multiplying phone calls indicate that his determination to avoid the tax is causing him more trouble than he bargained for.

As his woes accumulate, Mickey’s reliance on an intimidating manner slowly disintegrates into the desperation of someone in trouble with the law, someone caught in a situation too tight to escape. Anyone reading current headlines about New York lawmakers Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos will understand the comment Mamet is making on absolute power corrupting absolutely.

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Although the playwright holds off on his explosive ending for longer than he should, when it does arrive, it’s explosive, all right. It’s not only a surprise, it’s perhaps even too much of an unexpected plot turn. But it does send the audience up the aisles with more satisfaction than they felt at the end of the attenuated first act. (What happens? That’s for me to know and you to find out. Let’s just say it’s obliquely related to the plane, to Frankie, and to their upcoming nuptials in London.)

As for Pacino, needing to commit so many one-sided telephone conversations to memory would have taxed anyone, what with one rat-a-tat sequence often coming directly after another. And that is only one aspect of his performance, an acting turn that calls to mind others that Pacino has given on stage and screen. There’s some of his Shylock in his disheveled look and stooped shoulders. His flashes of anger are familiar from, for example, his underrated Danny Collins film characterization of earlier this year.

But this is also known as style, and Pacino has always had it in great supply. He may have to exhibit more of it than necessary here, but he’s certainly effective at displaying Mickey’s labile moods. Few will question that the actor is earning his keep to do all this eight times a week. And theater lovers must never forget Pacino’s devotion to the stage. If only others who’ve abandoned it were the same.

A good deal ought to be said, too, about Denham’s long-enduring Carson. If the character is initially depicted as upstanding and deferential, there comes a point when the character may remain adamantly upstanding but not so deferential, and the tall Denham plays that scene perfectly. He’s no longer a factotum trying to minimize his height but a young man discovering he has a long spine.

Pam McKinnon directs the play with her standard authority, but a question comes to mind: Did she recognize Mamet’s overwriting and request trims that never materialized? Mamet, who likes composing two-handers, has done them well in the past — though not in The Anarchist that did in Patti LuPone and Debra Winger a few years back. He has something here, but still needs to refine it.

The China Doll title? Don’t ask me. If a China doll is mentioned, if there’s a glancing reference to it, I missed it. Is Frankie Chinese? Does the Toronto-grounded plane carry that moniker? There’ll be no answers here.