New York City Theater
Gerald Schoenfeld Theater
You’d think with such a pedigree – Al Pacino in a new play by David Mamet – that “China Doll” would register as LOL. Instead, it’s WTF. An hour and fifty minutes of this two-hour endurance test wouldn’t seem to belong to the Pulitzer Prize author of masterful pieces like “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “American Buffalo,” “Speed-the-Plow” and “Oleanna.” Only in the final ten minutes does “China Doll” come to life, as conflict becomes manifest and all the previous sparks of huffing and puffing at last light a fire.
Wealthy industrialist Mickey Ross (Pacino), a big shot who has the goods on people like the governor (of New York?), has had his plane, “China Doll,” impounded in Toronto. Although registered in Switzerland, the plane made an emergency landing on U. S. soil and, therefore, by the government’s calculation, is subject to taxes.
Talking with his lawyer, his fiancée and plane company officials, threatening the governor, Ross becomes increasingly desperate first to not pay $5 million that the government demands, then to avoid going to jail for breaking the law. Increasingly bereft, feeling his age, Ross refuses to go calmly into the night.
His factotum, Carson (Christopher Denham), performs several duties for his boss, mainly dialing his phone numbers. (The Bluetooth should get equal billing.) Towards the end of the play, phone calls are abandoned as Carson and the play come to life. Too late.
The character of Ross has whiffs of Donald Trump: same obscene wealth, same bluster, same bullying, even the same amount of hair although Trump’s is orange and Pacino’s is gray. “There are a lot of foolish people out there,” says Ross. “Many of them vote.” But Mamet is no liberal, so his play may be taken not as a critique of power brokers but an appreciation of them and a defense against a government that thinks of nothing but taxes and the hell with an individual. That would account for the final image of a sniveling, prevaricating Ross for whom we should possibly feel pity.
Pacino embodies the character’s less attractive qualities with ease. Snarling, prowling, growling, elongating his words, alternately angry and caustic, cajoling and self-aware (“Success can buy duplicity”), he creates Ross’ need to claim his place at the top of the world. Pacino commands as if he would button-hole any audience member who wasn’t paying attention and, in truth, you can’t keep your eyes off him.
As Carson, Denham is quietly patient, accommodating and deferential, not showing his mettle until the final moments. On Derek McLane’s elegant penthouse set, the two actors are in a contest to prove, as the play has it, “everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” Whatever award-winning director Pam MacKinnon contributed is hard to discern: Pacino seems to have been wound up and let go.
With this production, Mamet is thumbing his nose at dramaturgy, at coherence, at critics who praised his veil of toughness but decried his misogyny and misanthropy. Defiantly empty, the work is more rant than play, more the dying of a light than a work alive with meaning and possibilities. Mamet’s love-hate relationship with male power and supremacy, power threatened by female interference, is nowhere more obvious than here. Cynicism and dyspepsia can be admirable theatrical traits; careless writing is not.
--David A. Rosenberg
December 16, 2015