Friday, January 29, 2016

CHINA DOLL: Getting Its Act Together As It Prepares to Close

Who would have thunk it?  China Doll, a play that has been ripped to shreds for both its content and the performance of the superstar at its center, is now pretty much ready for prime time – just as it is about to close.

Let’s take a look at the two chief complaints that have been lodged against China Doll’s playwright, David Mamet, and its star, Al Pacino, and see where things stand as of earlier this week when I saw it. (These criticisms, by the way, did not hurt box office receipts; the show’s lead producer recently announced that the play has recouped its $3.7 million investment). 

Complaint Number One:  That the play itself is barely comprehensible. That was then; this is now.  Now it is comprehensible. It is about an aging high-power businessman who is getting ready to bail out, marry his much younger girlfriend, and enjoy his golden years with the lucre he has been gathering over a lifetime of wheeling and dealing. Most of the play consists of one-sided phone calls during which the businessman is trying to wrap up loose ends.  It also becomes clear there are several vultures hanging around eager to pluck out his eyes when it appears to them he has lost some of his edge.  
David Mamet, who arguably has lost some of his own edge since the brilliant days of Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-The-Plow, comes close to that level of writing (great snappy lines that allow Pacino to show his character’s business acumen as well as his ability to coerce or to turn on the charm at the drop of a hat).  Mamet also gives us something new – the creation of fully-realized characters whom we only ever know through Mr. Pacino’s one-sided conversations, yet who seem to be as real as if they were onstage.   

Complaint Number Two:  That Al Pacino has no idea of how to play the role, and, at 75, he cannot sustain the performance.  That was then; this is now. Now Pacino's character, Mickey Ross, is also fully realized, on stage as well as on the page.  This has emerged as a Tony-worthy performance by Pacino. (Yes, he now is that good, though conceivably Tony voters who saw the play earlier in the run may not agree.)

In any event, Pacino brings the unseen and unheard characters to life just by the way he shifts his voice and body language as he talks to them on the phone.  We know when he is talking to or about his girlfriend, when he is talking to people involved in selling him a new airplane, when he is talking to his attorney or to a longtime “frenemy” of a business associate, even when these phone calls swirl and spin together with such rapidity that Pacino comes close to presenting us with the impossible phenomenon of the one-man overlapping dialog.  And if he had trouble learning his lines in time for the play’s opening, it is not surprising; it is a marathon of words he must run for every single performance. If there remain prompters of any sort, they are not visible, at least not from where I sat in the orchestra section.  

[I pause here to mention that China Doll also has a director, and a very good one, too, in Pam MacKinnon (the Obie-winning Clybourne Park and a Tony-wnning revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Her ability to shape things during all of the early mayhem of this production is not clear, given the two powerhouses she was dealing with in the playwright and the star.]

Although he dominates, Mr. Pacino is not entirely alone onstage. Christopher Denham gives a very efficient performance as a very efficient assistant named Carson who is able to keep up with Mickey Ross’s demands and provide him with the information he needs always to be able to rattle off on a moment’s notice.  Keep an eye on Carson as the vultures start to close in on Mickey. Indeed, my only real criticism of the play lies with its very last scene involving the pair of them. It is logical and in keeping with Pacino’s character, but it comes off as a clumsy way of bringing things to a close.

But make no mistake about it.  This is David Mamet’s play, and this is Al Pacino’s star turn, and, now at the end of its run, they show they that they have what it takes. If this should wind up to be Mr. Pacino’s swan song on Broadway, he has done himself proud. Too bad we had to wait so long for things to jell.  

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the new website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

THE CHANGLING: Rare Production of Jacobean Drama Tries to Capture Grand Style of Blood and Lust -- With Mixed Results

Red Bull Theater Presents THE CHANGLING

Red Bull Theater and its founding artistic director Jesse Berger are well known for their over-the-top productions of blood soaked Jacobean dramas. So it surprises me to have to say that its current presentation of Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s 17th Century play The Changeling is rather tame in its staging and rocky in its embrace of heightened language. 

Oh, there is plenty of stage blood, and even a severed finger in the mix, but this is a play that is drenched in secrets, lies, treachery, and unbridled lust along with the gore, and it needs to engulf us in a tale of a pair of hell-bound souls who are beyond redemption.

The Changeling begins almost as if it were going to be a romantic comedy.  Beatrice-Joanna (Sara Topham) is betrothed to Alonzo (John Skelley), but is smitten at the very first sight of Alsemero (Christian Coulson), a handsome stranger who crosses her path. How will she dump the fiancĂ© in order to get her heart’s desire? 

This could be the lead off into a madcap romp, perhaps one involving wily servants, that ends happily with the lovers united.  But things quickly veer in another direction altogether when Beatrice-Joanna concludes that the only way to rid herself of Alonzo is to have him killed.  

Without giving a thought to possible consequences, she enlists the aid of De Flores (Manoel Felciano), a servant in her father’s household, a man she despises but who has long lusted after her and is primed to do her bidding.  When the deed is done (the severed finger is the proof he offers to her), De Flores declines the gold she throws at him and insists that she give herself to him instead. Before you know it, the two are mutually bound together in their shared guilt, while Beatrice-Joanna tries to figure out how to hide what she is doing from Alsemero, whom she is now free to wed.

There is also a comic subplot that takes place in a madhouse and a clever bit of chicanery (involving another servant) by which Beatrice-Joanna contrives to hide her loss of virginity. But for all intent, this is still a moral tragedy, and tragedy steeped in utter corruption is what should be at the core of the production. 

Instead, what we get is more like melodrama, with an underplayed sense of sexual madness (we hear quite a bit about it, but see very little of it). Even the play’s dark humor has been mined for laughs rather than for the way its sardonic quality reflects the overall tone.  And while the cast generally performs, projects, and enunciates the unfamiliar dialog well enough for the audience to understand, there is an unfortunate mix of elocution styles.  Some of the actors (Sam Tsoutsouvas as Beatrice-Joanna’s father is a prime example) manage to make the 17th Century language seem most naturalistic, with the words falling “trippingly off the tongue,” as the playwrights’ contemporary William Shakespeare put it in Hamlet. Others, however, speak with unfortunately modern cadences, so that, once more, the production lacks consistency.

Admittedly, it does feel as if there are two different plays that were cobbled together long, long ago.  (Presumably, Middleton was responsible for the traditional Jacobean tragic scenes, while Rowley tackled the comic elements.) What is missing here is a clear enough vision to bring the two sides together. 

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the new website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.