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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre


  Christopher Denham and Al Pacino/ Ph: Jeremy Daniel

Like most people these days, I go to the theater so I don’t have to see or think about Donald Trump. And yet, here’s Al Pacino, with badly behaved hair and a monstrous ego, spewing two hours of self-satisfied blather as pugnacious moneybags Mickey Ross. His is not just any malarkey, however. David Mamet has scripted this dramatically desiccated pencil sketch, in which Ross sweet-talks, wheedles and vituperates his fiancée, lawyer and political enemies via Bluetooth. The vast majority of China Doll has Pacino shuffling around a lavishly appointed penthouse talking on the phone. Have you ever had a burning desire to watch Pacino at home, arguing all morning with AppleCare Plus? You are in luck.
That China Doll is a very weak, dull and puzzling play has been established by the near-universal scorn heaped on it. The only semi-positive notice it received was in The Wall Street Journal, and that conservative fish-wrapper is legally required to humor any born-again reactionary. The rest of the critical establishment left the Schoenfeld on press night mouths agape and eyes glazed: Could this really be the latest from one of America’s greatest living playwrights? If ever you needed proof that playwriting is a young person’s game, just remember that Mamet (like Shepard, Albee and Stoppard) hasn’t had a decent play in decades.
So China Doll offers the sad spectacle of two world-class artists (if you include Pacino) turning in their lamest work. The play (in which Christopher Denham costars as an efficient assistant) is crammed with backstory about Ross’ past: His late, cherished mentor’s son is now a governor who wants to make an example of Ross. Also key to the story but never dramatized on stage is a private jet that Ross had built in Switzerland and flown to Canada to avoid the sales tax, which touched down briefly in the U.S. His fiancée was aboard and rudely strip-searched before allowed to continue to Toronto. Ross is furious, he’s outraged, and then he finds himself at the center of a conspiracy to bring him down.  
Pacino, wobbly on his lines, dithers without the vocal snap and drive that Mamet – even late, third-rate Mamet – needs to sustain tension. Maybe someone should tell the writer that his producers could afford a third character, a scene change or, better yet, a dramaturge with ideas. It is conceivable that a hungrier actor – F. Murray Abraham or Frank Langella – might have generated heat and drama out of this mess, but that would only be a temporary trick. Denham, posture excellent, focus sharp, can only stand on the sidelines and watch. If Mamet were truly a man of the theater, he would have developed the script in a workshop with trusted collaborators before foisting it onto the public. Pam MacKinnon directs China Doll, and I’m sure she’s spent most of her fee on therapists.
I’ve always believed Mamet to be, at bottom, a sketch artist. By that I mean a dramatist more comfortable in short form – the corrosive rant, the punchy one-liner, the abrupt close – rather than longer, slow-burning dramatic structures. Certainly, he’s written his share of vignettes, and decades in movies have instilled in him a love of the quick cut. What is Glengarry Glen Ross but a suite of sketches? The Anarchist was a single scene, which went on far too long. Yes, Mamet has written traditional two-act plays, but I’ve always felt that big (God forbid epic) drama has eluded him. This may be due to a smallness of vision, or a limited view of humanity. China Doll, less a play than an ungainly monologue with pretentions of wisdom and social satire, does no favors for his legacy.


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