Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

China Doll

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 4, 2015

China Doll by David Mamet. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Jess Goldstein. Lighting design by Russell H. Champa. Fight direction by Thomas Schall. Cast: Al Pacino, with Christopher Denham.
Theatre: Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge


Christopher Denham and Al Pacino
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

The fiercest battle of the fall theater season is being waged at the Gerald Schoenfeld, where David Mamet's play China Doll just opened. But the battered and bloody combatants are not the play's two characters. In fact, they're the play itself and the production it's receiving under the guiding muscle of Al Pacino.

No, Pacino is not the director of record—that would be Pam MacKinnon. But given the overwhelming impact he's having on what's transpiring onstage, he might as well be. The acclaimed actor has proven himself capable of taking on a variety of forceful, devilish roles on both screen and stage in which he transforms gritty, avuncular charm into something less predictable and more scary. And for his role here of Mickey Ross, a multi-multi-millionaire who may or may not be hiding something sinister beneath the opaque veil of his business success, on paper Pacino would seem to be ideal: brusque, committed, bruisable and unstoppable.

When Pacino is able and willing to let himself go, his Mickey is all you could ask for. Beguiling, terrifying, funny—at once everything we fantasize about and fear in the dirtiest of the filthy rich. Mickey could never be an easy person to like, concerned as he is with private jets, country hopping, and avoiding a $5 million tax bill. But Pacino barrels through those moments without stopping to breathe, choosing to dwell instead on the less sexy aspects that make Mickey less an intractable figure than a man.

His devotion to his fiancée, Francine, is total, and his hunger in helping her escape a foreign-travel snafu (she's stuck at a Toronto airport) is all-consuming. He's a genuine, even loving, father figure to his assistant-protégé, Carson (Christopher Denham). And when Mickey sets his sights on righting what he perceives as moral wrongs, whether they emanate from the law, the government, or the individual enemies he's made slicing and dicing his way to the top, Pacino's underlying passion guarantees you'll be in Mickey's corner regardless of whether or not you agree with his aims.

Mickey, in other words, is a take-no-prisoners character in the grand Mamet tradition of Glengarry Glen Ross's Richard Roma or Speed-the-Plow's knockout duo of Charlie Fox and Bobby Gould: the best and worst of humanity rolled into a single irresistible package. As written, China Doll is a sizzling showcase for the actor playing him, who's trusted with not only reconciling the disparate aspects of his personality but also doing so at light speed, most of the time in phone conversations, and crafting from the Mamet-trademarked snippets of disconnected dialogue an entire army of unseen supporting characters that Mickey must parlay with, wrestle into submission, and war with outright, to ensure that he gets what he wants (the plane he's ordered, so he and Francine can fly to London and be married) when he wants it (no small challenge, considering it's impounded north of the border), and on his terms (you can probably guess these).

This, alas, is where this production goes wildly astray. For all the natural gifts that Pacino brings to the part, and for the isolated flashes of brilliance he displays, his Mickey as a whole is a lurching, lumbering, unconvincing creation that keeps China Doll from landing with the full force a reading of the script shows it's capable of. Rumors were flying during previews of Pacino's difficulty learning his lines, and based on the Wednesday preview performance I attended, that is not a mountain he has yet conquered. Though I didn't notice a ton of stumbles—and given Mamet's start-and-stop, abandon-one-thought-and-finish-another style, it would be difficult to discern them in any case—it was obvious that Pacino was not secure in how to speak most of Mickey's words or convey their underlying meaning.

Because the script is essentially a telephone monologue for Mickey, it demands clear points of demarcation between the folks on the other end of the line and Mickey's split-millisecond transitions between them as, say, Francine gives way to his lawyer, who in turn becomes the governor, who is interrupted by Carson explaining a critical bit of outsider information. Pacino does none of this, which makes it all but impossible to follow the conversations Mickey is having and why. Further, Pacino's line readings are halting and muddy, not delivered at the kind of breakneck pace that would underscore both how Mickey conducts his day-to-day existence and the urgency of the existential threat facing him. Pacino doesn't cut through nonsense so much as stop to admire it and then amble awkwardly on.

Because of this, what should be an electrifying character study blended with a darkly subversive political-crime drama becomes overall jumbled and unsatisfying. There are a few other problems, too. Carson could be a more active, forward-thinking sound board than Denham gives us; the actor plays him a bit too stiff and uncertain for us to see him as the heir to the kingdom Mickey must. And MacKinnon, a gifted director at corralling conflict in works like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Clybourne Park could, in theory, provide a crisper, higher-stakes staging that compensated for some of Pacino's apparent weaknesses.

But the intricate interlocking of plot points and the ways they're developed to slowly surround Mickey and recast him in a constantly changing, ever-more-revealing light are beautifully executed—contemporary Mamet at his most twisted and devious. In particular, the final ten minutes as written, directed, and acted are truly thrilling (one smidgen of unfortunate blocking aside). And the design is sumptuous, with Derek McLane's luxurious apartment set a fizzy tribute to the upper crust, Russell H. Champa's lights subtly striking and psychologically probing, and Jess Goldstein's costumes establishing a wry canvas on which to project Mickey's disintegrating mental state and Carson's buttoned-up obsequiousness.

That this type of delicious detail is present at all is what makes it impossible to dismiss China Doll—or to fully embrace this version of it. All the proper elements appear to be on hand, but the few tiny misalignments are just killers. With the proper additional time (and whip-cracking?), the pieces could come together into what there's every reason to believe the play can be: a gripping, incisive look at what happens when a free-wheeling rich man is transformed into an animal locked in a cage of his own making. But that's unlikely to happen as long as Pacino, and not the magnificent monster he's portraying, is the one who seems lost and trapped.




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