Al Pacino in China Doll
For anyone who has ever wondered what it might be like to listen to Al Pacino talk on the phone for a couple of hours, they now have the opportunity to eavesdrop on the stage and screen star as he wheels, deals and connives courtesy of David Mamet’s China Doll, which opened last night on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
In this newest work from the multi-award-winning playwright, Pacino plays Mickey Ross, a powerful, connected and very wealthy man who’s contending with a thorny issue. A private jet that he purchased has gone missing. Well, not quite missing. It’s in Canada, as is his much-younger unseen British girlfriend.
Ross had hoped to avoid paying sales tax on the Swiss-manufactured plane, but as it was en route from the Caribbean to Canada, it had to make a emergency stop on American soil. Because of this, Ross now faces a bigger price tag for this oversized toy, which has an interior designed by the girlfriend. The touchdown in the States means that Ross is looking at a $5 million dollar sales tax bill.
Theatergoers glean all of this, and much more, as Ross, looking disheveled in a tux and prowling a copiously chic apartment (respective designs by Darek McLane and Jess Goldstein),swaps between phone calls to his attorney, an old pal who’s also a seeming aide to the governor in the unnamed state where the play unfolds, the girlfriend, and a representative from the aircraft manufacturer overseas.
The trouble with the conceit of Ross dealing with all of this on the phone is that he has to keep repeating to each person what has gone wrong. Thus, audiences learn several times that the plane’s call numbers have been changed. The repetitive information in the calls and Pacino’s often stammering delivery mean that China Doll (which one assumes refers to the girlfriend) can make much of the first half of the play exceptionally slow-going.
Things do liven up as Ross begins to realize that he’s not as all-powerful as he believes. It would seem that the governor, whose father was also an old friend of Ross’, has decided to make an example of the man regarding the evasion of sales tax, and in retaliation, Ross threatens to expose some damning secrets from the man’s past. Unfortunately, in this instance, Mamet leaves audiences to guess what sort of dirt Ross might have on his gubernatorial foe, and so while it’s intriguing to watch Pacino raise the stakes, it’s also frustrating.
As with so many of Mamet’s plays, tables turn several times for Ross and his unseen foes before the play has ended. Along the way, Ross also imparts pieces of his “wisdom” to his incredibly patient assistant, Carson (an admirably supportive and sly performance from Christopher Denham).
Throughout, audience members familiar with Mamet’s other works can’t help but sense how China Doll fits into his worldview. The machinations at work in this new play recall the kinds of scams at work in American Buffalo, and if the men on the other end of the phone were to actually appear, one imagines that fireworks similar to those between the real estate agents of Glengarry Glen Ross would erupt. (Not coincidentally, both of these earlier works are ones in which Pacino has appeared.)
Sadly, Ross’ adversaries do not appear, which means that audiences have to content themselves with listening to a string of one-sided phone conversations for two hours. At least, there’s some joy to be had in watching Pacino command attention with offbeat intensity. Further, the play’s indictment of how big business and wealth has the potential to corrupt our political system has an unfortunate and disheartening timeliness.
---- Andy Propst
China Doll plays at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (236 West 45th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: chinadollbroadway.com.
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