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. 

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