A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
As Corleone was mentored by his father, so one of China Doll's never seen characters is an Old Man who mentored a young Mickey to "keep your friends close, but your enemies closer." Like Michael Corleone, Mickey wants out from his business (whatever it is, it involves shady dealings and political alliances) —. Michael's famously despairing "just when I thought I was out. . .they pull me back in" applies to Mickey's plan to leave his business for a more fun life with his China Doll/trophy fiancée Francine Pierson, or as he times refers to her as Frankie
Mickey is the kind of character that has built Pacino's reputation as "the great Pacino" and worked well in previous collaborations with David Mamet, especially the Pulitzer prize winning Glen Garry Glen Ross in which Pacino originally played Richard Roma, and switched to Shelley Levene in the 2012 revival .
Both Pacino and Mamet are strong box office draws, and a marquee featuring both practically guarantees success, no matter what the critics say. However, since Mamet's political rebirth as a staunch conservative his playwriting effectiveness, like that of the Republicans he now supports, has diminished steadily. And while Pacino isn't looking a gift horse in the mouth (Mamet wrote China Doll for him), all the charisma, verbal and physical quirks he brings to Mickey Ross can't save this horse from being lame-footed.
It's not unusual for solo plays to use frequent telephone conversations and a nearby but unseen secretary or other second banana to create a more full-featured aura and avoid stasis. This play's assistant, the efficient and eager to please and succeed Carson, is on stage almost as constantly as Pacino's Ross. Christopher Denham even gets to speak now and then and to at one point be a bit more than a straight man. Yet, this is still essentially a solo play consisting of a series of monologues, most via telephone calls that propel the plot and introduce us to a bunch of unseen characters.
The plot unfolds in an ultra modern terraced penthouse that seems to be Ross's home-office (nice work, as always by Derek McLane). The plot complications center around Ross's plan to take off to spend his golden years with the English woman who's half his age to whom he can offer the comforts of wealth to make up what he'd like to give her but can't. (Hasn't Mickey or his creator ever heard of Viagra or seen those Cialis commercials that have older men with erectile dysfunction blissfully float off in side-by-side bathtubs?)
Those complications start with the first phone call's news that the $5million sales tax he wanted to avoid paying for his recently purchased private jet is in jeopardy due to an emergency landing on American soil. This ricochets into more problems that include locating his bride-to-be in Toronto, keeping the plane from being impounded. . .and finally facing serious criminal charges largely due to the young politician running for governor who he's supported using him as a winning "issue." When not on the phone, he's apologizing to young Carson for treating him badly and also presenting him with pearls of wisdom about success.
All this one-sided talk doesn't exactly have you on the edge of your seat, despite having a usually smart director like Pam MacKinnon at the helm. Even if that Bluetooth thingie and the laptop and other props contain prompters to support gossip about the actor having problems remembering the lengthy text, Pacino is still very much a stage presence. He manages to make the not especially likeable billionaire eminently watchable, especially when you see the tough bully turn emotional softy when talking to his China Doll.
But while this has none of the snap, crackle, pop of Mamet gems like American Buffalo, Glen Garry Glen Ross or Speed-the-Plow Ross, the program's listing of a fight director (Thomas Shall) does indicate that somehow there will be some real action to top Ross's gradual shift from bullying bravado to desperation. And Mr. Mamet is still enough of a pro to treat us to a few Mametian zingers — as when Ross declares that his young political nemesis might win with "There's a lot of foolish people out there. Many of them vote." . . . and his observation that "everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die." Too bad that there's not more of this and less about the plane's markings and the legalities of international commerce.
While China Doll is better than Mamet's last two-hander, The Anarchist (not with Pacino), it's at best an 80-minute intermissionless play. The transition from evening to daytime could easily be handled with a pause and Russell H. Champa's lighting, but then Mr. Pacino probably needs that ten minute break.
Despite, the negative gossip, , there are enough Pacino fans out there to have made China Doll one of Broadway's best selling shows. Pacino's popularity may well make it critic proof for the rest of its run. So why bother to write a play for him? Why not just invite Mr. Pacino to come back for an evening of just talking about his long life on stage and screen?