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David Mamet’s “China Doll” Reviewed

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The two best working playwrights today are UK-Czech Jew Tom Stoppard, and American Jew David Mamet, both are past their prime, and both have released some excellent work not for the stage in recent years.  Stoppard’s radio play “Darkside” from 2013 and Mamet’s HBO film “Phil Spector” also in 2013, are both worth your attention. The latter featured Al Pacino as the Afro wig wearing wall of sound convicted  murderer on the eve of his first trial, Pacino portrayed Spector like Pacino portraying Spector but no else could’ve given such a line reading of the “Jesus was too big for his britches” speech. T

Two years later Pacino and Mamet are back together again.   “China Doll” is the third Broadway collaboration and also the worst. It is like Mamet lost interest half way through and forced Pacino to carry a play almost entirely impossible to carry. With only two actors, Pacino as Mickey Ross, a self-made billionaire, and Christopher Denson as his assistant Carson, the play lurches from one telephone call to another, as Ross unravels they mystery as to  what has caused the Canadian government to impound his private $60 million airplane, the “China Doll” of the title.

The Mamet-Pacino partnership sound better on paper than it has proven to be in movies or at the theatre, and the problems is that Pacino is tailor made for Mamet’s rat-a-tat dialogue, it sounds like Pacino and it brings out a certain laziness in Pacino, he doesn’t have to give  too much schtick. All he has to do is show up and say his words… which leads to another problem, Pacino doesn’t have his words down, and it is sad to see him stagger about the stage with an earpiece being fed lines. Which leads to another problem, the words aren’t all that great. Except for a couple of scenes in the first act when Pacino explains business to Carson, and an explosion of anger at the first act as well, with Ross threatening to add an asterisk to his name, it is very standard fare.

On a boring set with nothing to watch but Pacino reading exposition, the story drags and the evening drags and people lose interest and it seems like it is heading for disaster. But slowly it begins to pull out of its tailspin and the story starts to grip. Ross has bought a private plane to scurry his much younger fiancée (never seen or heard of course –no one is) to and from London. To save US sales tax he has his fiancée meet him in Toronto from London, while he will be travelling from an unnamed (har de har) US City to Toronto. All well and good, except Ross has two pieces of very very bad luck. The company Ross bought the plane from switched the license from Switzerland to the US without his knowledge and then the plane landed in the US for a minor repair.

The Governor, a rich kid Ross has known since the Governor was a child, and somewhat on the Andrew Cuomo side of things, decides he needs am issue, decides Ross is the issue, and pulls his fiancée off the plane and has her stripped search. The Governor then goes after Ross for tax evasion. Ross goes crazy, calls the Governor’s father, and warns the Governor he has some serious stuff on “the kid” and will use it. End of act one.

Now, if you’ve bothered to pay attention, the story begins to move forward, and Pacino’s performance gels nicely: he is very clear in making you know where you stand plotwise, and gives the realms of storytelling as opposed to acting at least some tension. As he maneuvers himself in and out of trouble, there is something of Mamet’s consistent shell game-con game about him, and there is a real pleasure in watching Ross think his way through it.  As for stories of Pacino not being ready, well, it is in previews and he is 75 years old, and I thought he did the job. Give Al something where he didn’t have to carry the lot,  an ensemble piece, somewhere where the words could flow back and forth and he’d be much better.

This is bad Mamet, the ending is terrible, I mean truly bad, and the construction of the story is very lazy. However, the story itself is quite fascinating and it is really sad Mamet didn’t give it the play the care  it deserved.

Grade: B-

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