China Doll

Al Pacino returns to Broadway in David Mamet’s new play about a billionaire whose retirement isn’t going to be as easy as he thought.

Al Pacino returns to Broadway in David Mamet's newest play, China Doll.
Al Pacino returns to Broadway in David Mamet's newest play, China Doll.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

"You almost wish you hadn't been there," said an audience member on her way out of the Schoenfeld Theatre. "Because you feel bad for him." The "him" in question is Al Pacino, titan of stage and screen, who has returned to Broadway in China Doll, the latest play from another iconic figure, David Mamet. The aforementioned spectator's reaction, however, is a bit overblown.

Is China Doll a great play? No. At times it's barely passable. But Mamet's old-school lacerating wit is on display quite frequently, and Pacino is obviously having a ball screaming and cursing his way through the text. It proves to be a thoroughly entertaining evening for Pacino fans, a performance that goes to show that a truly great actor can (almost) overcome even the most confounding material.

China Doll is set in the sleek apartment of Mickey Ross (Pacino), an American billionaire on the verge of retirement (his job remains unclear). Mickey is about to fly overseas to meet up with his much younger fiancée, but there's a problem. His brand-new plane, purchased from a Swiss aircraft manufacturer, has been impounded in Canada under dubious circumstances. As Mickey, aided by his secretary, Carson (Christopher Denham), attempts to unravel what's going on, he realizes that his head is wanted on a stake, and that starting a new life isn't as easy as he expected.

There are several crucial problems with China Doll. The first is that it isn't dramatically compelling. Although there are two actors onstage, Mamet's writing here amounts to a solo show for Pacino, who spends the night talking on the phone with various unseen figures in an effort to discover why his plane is in hock and why his British girlfriend has, all of a sudden, assumed a pseudonym. He talks to so many people, including his lawyer and various politicos, about so many of the same things that one completely loses track of what's going on and who's who.

This leads to the second problem: China Doll is confusing. Mickey talks in code: One person is referred to as "The Kid"; another is "The Old Man." They are prominent figures in the story of his undoing, and Mickey may even be related to them. But who they are, how they know each other, and why they're gunning for him remains a mystery. It's almost as though the scenes that explained each person were axed from the finished script and the audience is left to pick up the pieces.

Still, nothing beats a sharp Mamet one-liner, and this script is peppered with several. Pacino delivers choice quotes like, "There's a lot of foolish people out there — many of them vote," with the same snarling, lip-licking gusto as, "Say hello to my little friend" in Scarface. Even if he is using teleprompters, as speculated in the press (for the record, there are two live MacBooks, an iPad, and a Bluetooth in his ear onstage), his work is still virtuosic, drawing on his years of experience playing characters with the shortest possible fuse to deliver the quintessential Al Pacino performance. And that's thrilling.

The always reliable Denham has little to do except look petrified, and he does so credibly, as one would expect when Al Pacino is yelling in your face. Director Pam MacKinnon guides both of them to pace like caged animals, which helps build tension when there otherwise wouldn't be any (especially at the very end, which is one of the season's more "oh, come on" moments). Derek McLane contributes a sleek living room set that screams "money." Jess Goldstein costumes the actors in Armani suits that define their personalities: Pacino's is crumpled and well-worn, while Denham's is considerably crisper. The lighting, by Russell H. Champa, sets the mood for both acts, which take place in the late evening and early morning.

What Mamet is trying to say in China Doll is as hazy as the identities of the people who want to bring Mickey Ross down. It's possible to read the play as an indictment of the wealthy, but it's just as easy to see it as a condemnation of those wishing for the fall of the one-percent. It could also be a commentary on the fragility of life in the public eye. One thing's for sure: It's still better than his last play, The Anarchist.

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