'China Doll': Theater Review

Jeremy Daniel
Al Pacino in 'China Doll'
Not cleared for takeoff.
1/31/2016

Al Pacino stars as a one-percenter whose plan to avoid paying sales tax on his new $60 million private plane backfires in David Mamet's latest play.

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. 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. 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.

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 don't get too excited. 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. 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.

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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. 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.

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. But the fatal weaknesses are in the writing, not the performance. 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.

As the play opens in a swanky penthouse apartment that appears to be in New York, Pacino's Mickey is barking orders at his personal assistant Carson (Christopher Denham). A self-made man in the Sheldon Adelson mold, 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. It appears that an emergency touchdown was required on American soil, which complicates Mickey's plan to keep the plane out of the country for six months, and thus avoid paying $5 million in sales tax.

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Who's responsible? 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. 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. 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. If the plane snafu was just a series of lucky coincidences it's even sillier, as is the very idea that a man of Mickey's resources couldn't extricate himself from such a tangle.

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.)

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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. Clearly, Carson is ambitious, studying for his own future success. 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.

There's a dispiriting fatigue to the writing here, even in the customary rhythmic speech that long ago became a Mamet trademark. 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. But, coming from a playwright who built his career on pitiless examinations of masculinity, power and ruthlessness, Mickey ultimately makes for wearisome company.

Venue: Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, New York
Cast: Al Pacino, Christopher Denham
Director: Pam MacKinnon
Playwright: David Mamet
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Jess Goldstein
Lighting designer: Russell H. Champa
Fight director: Thomas Schall
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. Johnson, Larry Magid, Gabrielle Palitz, R&D Theatricals, Jamie DeRoy, Stewart F. Lane & Bonnie Comley, Jessica Genick, Will Trice

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