“Hello? It’s me.”
“No, no, not fuckin’ Adele. It’s Al….Al! Whaddaya mean Al who? Pacino. And I’ve got a private plane I’m gonna shove up your ass and out your ears in, oh, a little over two hours if you don’t give me what I need.”
“What am I calling for? Haven’t you been reading the New York Post? I’m calling for my lines.”
“No, not coke. Lines in a play. On Broadway. Yeah. Uh huh. China Doll. You. The prompter. You’re goddamn right that’s why I’m calling.”
“Okay, good. Finally. Yeah. Go ahead. Uh huh. Yeah….which line? The first one…”
Enough already. I’m sure you get the point. Pacino’s character, Mickey Ross, is on his Bluetooth headset for the majority of his latest Broadway gig, a limited run in David Mamet’s new play, China Doll, an unintentionally excoriating glimpse into the monied life of a power player whose wheels begin to sputter.
And early reports accused Pacino, 75, of major struggles with his lines and maligned the play as an incomprehensible mess. The truth is somewhat more nuanced. Mamet, who turned from “brain-dead liberal” to political conservative relatively late in life after trading political tomes with his conservative neighbor, gives us an occasionally captivating glimpse into the private life of a career-maker in business and politics who comes face to face with hubris.
The play gets off to a slow start, with Mickey (with frazzled coif and in Giorgio Armani — costume design is by Jess Goldstein) discussing the tail numbers of his latest purchase, a private plane he bought with a luxe interior designed by his British fiancée, Francine, a British national who, it turns out, may be assisting in a scheme to evade U.S. taxes. He’s got his clean-cut assistant Carson (Christopher Denham in an utterly thankless role) on the case as well, calling the various players involved in the situation before patching them over to Mickey’s headset.
Fortunately, Mamet cranks up the heat as the implications of the situation start to come to light (the plane, which was being delivered from Switzerland to Canada, landed on U.S. soil due to an emergency, sparking the controversy at hand; this means the state is demanding sales taxes). The problem with China Doll isn’t so much with its story though, or even its dialogue. The plot points we’re privy to are interesting enough once all the tax talk dies down, but the play’s excessive use of one-sided phone conversations renders inert a play which otherwise might have had promise. There’s not much that director Pam MacKinnon can do to enliven the piece; characters whose backstories seem vibrant and interesting from Mickey’s conversations with them remain enigmas to us. Had they been introduced on stage, they might have added conflict to the proceedings and provided a much-needed break for Pacino, who’s given the lion’s share of the play’s text (which is essentially a one-man play with occasional breaks for dialogue between Pacino and his co-star).
It’s no wonder Pacino has been rumored to wear an earpiece considering the herculean task he’s given memorizing sixty-plus pages of fragmented telephone conversations (arguably more difficult than memorizing a coherent solo text). Despite an unsteady start at the performance I attended, at which point he seemed to be grasping for lines, he settled in nicely and ripped through Mamet’s crackling dialogue with the kind of ferocity you’d expect from a veteran stage animal (China Doll is Pacino’s twelfth Broadway appearance). Say what you will about the phone-heavy dialogue, there’s still some fleeting magic in Mamet’s pen — including a few firecracker lines that really land. Plus, hearing Pacino wrap his weathered New Yawk voice around the phrase “the little cocksucker” can easily provide sustenance for a Mamet-obsessed theatergoer for days, with or without a healthy dose of irony.
Mickey is the kind of classic Mamet specimen who could have really worked within the right framework, perhaps even more so than the leading ladies of his last Broadway outing, The Anarchist, which had some intriguing ideas but no dramatic framework. He’s brash, foul-mouthed, speaks his mind, and is increasingly trapped in a corner, perfect ingredients for another great character who could have been a kind of late-career behemoth counterpart to the workaday nasties of early Mamet successes like Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow, maybe even a kind of Mametian King Lear.
As he is though, viewed under the harsh lights of Broadway and within the context of the writer’s unsuccessful play, Mickey’s more of a mess. As he faces mounting affronts against his honor, he’s led into perhaps the most deliciously terrible ending ever seen on Broadway, not necessarily dramatically implausible but written and directed with giggle-inducing ineptitude. It lasts less than five minutes but will likely sear itself onto the memories of all who witness it (I’ve been reenacting it feverishly over the last two days to all in my life who will listen and don’t mind spoilers). That’s more than can be said for the rest of the play, which, given the price of tickets, resembles for most theatergoers the experience of paying for an internship as Donald Trump’s lackey, forced to witness the conversations of a madman without the luxury of exasperated interruption.