Little wonder there were rumors that Al Pacino couldn’t remember his lines in David Mamet’s new “China Doll,” which had its opening postponed for two extra weeks of previews at top prices.
The playwright has given Pacino, apparently one of his favorite actors, almost no story to build around his character and given him lines that pick over the same obvious plot points, mostly with the same barking emphasis, to nonexistent people supposedly on the other end of his phone’s Bluetooth earpiece.
So except for Carson, an ambitious office flunky (Christopher Denham in a thankless role), this is an almost two-hour (including an intermission) monologue that leaves Pacino virtually alone up there trying to dazzle us with shockingly little help from Mamet’s celebrated motormouth.
Pacino plays Mickey Ross, a rich old hotshot mogul/politico/crook with an oblique back-story, who desperately wants to reunite with his beautiful young girlfriend in Toronto and his new $60 million plane. The business isn’t fun anymore. Rivalry with a candidate for governor, the son of “the old man” who mentored Mickey, is getting uglier.
Pacino is legendary for his obsessive work for years on the same handful of plays, including Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” It is always a kick to watch him wrestle with a character — and this one is a beast. There are times, mostly in the second act, when he seems delighted with the Mickey that he and (we assume) director Pam Mackinnon are creating.
And this one is a beast. With his unsettling gray bouffant, his lizard eyes and his wrinkled black power suit, he cuts a scary yet baleful figure in a penthouse as big and cold as an airplane hangar (designed by Derek McLane). He yells at Carson, wheedles and hollers and goes mock-humble on the phone. Every so often, Mamet gives him a wonderful line that sums up the dark side of humanity. More often, however, the writing is as lazy as Mickey calling someone “more fun than a Swiss Army Knife.”
Mickey wants to retire with his spoils. But, with what we hope are intentional echoes of Michael Corleone’s famous “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in” speech, Mickey is stuck. So, alas, is Mamet.