Mamet's ‘China Doll,' With Pacino in the Lead, Proves Fragile

A businessman accustomed to getting what he wants -- he’s poised to take delivery of a $60 million private plane -- winds up cornered like a rat in “China Doll.” David Mamet’s newest drama, written with star Al Pacino in mind, has just opened at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

Pacino’s Mickey Ross reads like a classic Mamet figure from the outset, profanely berating his assistant over a mistake, then theatrically retracting his venom on learning the error was his own. Mickey is at the end of some kind of career that’s brought him political connections, wealth and attention from beautiful women.

Mamet’s two-act, two-character play is set in the kitchen and living room of a sterile urban penthouse, with a wraparound porch lined in seagrass. No city is specified, though it could pass for Manhattan. Pacino shares the stage with Christopher Denham ("Argo"), as a naive personal assistant, but his real co-star is a trio of cell phones and a Bluetooth hearing device.

Mickey spends most of “China Doll” yammering away in one-sided conversations, at various times with a lawyer; a political diffuser named Ruby; and his British fiancée, stashed away in a Toronto hotel room. Judging from intense pre-opening chatter, theatergoers early in previews had trouble deciphering the plot. We’re charged with doing so based on only Mickey’s part of these chats, and it can be a challenge, particularly with Pacino's halting delivery.

Here's what is clear: Mickey has bought the fancy jet from its Swiss manufacturer, planning to keep it off American soil just long enough to avoid the hefty tax bill. But on its maiden voyage, an emergency forces the pilot to divert briefly to an American airport before finishing its journey to Canada.

That triggers a close look by the feds, who are harsh with Frankie, the sole passenger, Mickey's girlfriend. Even as the airplane story is unfolding, we’re privy to Mickey’s conversations about his state’s incumbent governor, an old acquaintance running for reelection and looking for “an issue.” Too late, Mickey realizes, that issue will be him and his business practices.

Pacino doesn’t veer far from his usual delivery, working in a characteristically disheveled and hot-tempered fashion. Of note was a grandiose lesson in weakness and human behavior that Mickey gives to assistant Carson early in the first act; it telegraphs the play’s unusual conclusion.

Denham is very good as an earnest post-MBA type eager to learn from a master, though Mamet does the character no favors with a disingenuous turn late in the game.

Mamet raises subjects that feel provocatively timely. One need only skim the business pages to read about the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and a crack about politics (“There’s a lot of foolish people out there; many of them vote”) earns the biggest reaction of the night. But “China Doll” too often gets itself revved up with no place to go and no clear position.

The climax, which occurs impossibly soon after the events that set it in motion, would have benefited from a firmer hand by director Pam MacKinnon (“The Heidi Chronicles”). “China Doll” is muddled, but it's still a treat to see Pacino, even if we're not always sure what he's doing.

“China Doll,” through Jan. 31, 2016 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St. Tickets: $72-$149.50. Call 212-239-6200.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn 

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