Race, November–plays so poor you would think that David Mamet hated theatre and was taking out some some of revenge on Broadway. The Anarchist, part of a double bill with a revival of Glengarry Glen Ross in 2012, was a germ of an idea frustratingly undeveloped. Reviews were brutal for his latest, China Doll, which opened in early December, and closes Sunday after a limited run. Critics, charitable toward his run of flops, had out their shivs this time. When you walk past a Broadway theatre whose exterior isn’t plastered with rave notices, you know the occupant has been left for dead inside.
But never underestimate an audience’s love for a star. Al Pacino was miscast in the Glengarry revival, and he’s…well, something else, here. It’s hard to tell what he’s doing up there. When he says “motherfucker,” however, all is forgiven, and the house explodes with cheers and laughter, as if a profane tent revival was going on within the Schoenfeld. Al Pacino saying “motherfucker” is gold, and the show has recouped. Fuck the motherfucking critics.
Seen at the tail end of its run, all but one of the early problems that dogged the show have subsided. (It’s a mighty big one, however.) From what I gather, though, China Doll today isn’t the same China Doll seen a couple of months ago. With Tony Award-winning director Pam McKinnon apparently given her steak knives as a consolation prize, Mamet has unleashed Pacino, so we’re getting the full Al, the hoo-ah Al, the motherfucker Al, in a more comic, audience-consoling portrayal. Perhaps Mamet realized he had to give the ticket buyers something, as the first act of China Doll is excruciatingly turgid.
In typical Mamet fashion, the title of the play is never explained, nor is much else for an hour. In a swank apartment, Mickey Ross, a master of the universe, taunts, toys with, and apologizes to his assistant, Carson (Christopher Denham, in a rock-steady performance). Mickey’s universe is crumbling, and Carson is on the phone, with Mickey blue-toothed into the conversations. Mickey spends a lot of time yammering about the jet he’s bought his hot young fiancee, which is grounded in Toronto. He receives a plastic model of the plane as a gift, and every detail of the aircraft’s flight plan is detailed. (Foreshadowing.) Mickey is trying to protect the young woman, but he’s also trying to avoid taxes, and the closing of the net around him. “Get the files,” he tells Carson, ominously.
Carson gets the files, but a chunk of the audience, having fled into the night wasn’t there to see them revealed. (Planes to catch?) Mickey considers blackmailing his patrons and other bigwigs, then reconsiders, and teases Carson about deeding him his business. He also puts on an English accent and acts effeminate. Mickey does a number of things a desperate man wouldn’t do, but, hey, he’s Al, and at 75, Al, endearing, peculiar Al, does what he wants to do. The show could probably go on all night, with Mickey revealing more tics and eccentricities, but that model plane puts an end to it–a very unfortunate end, as it’s painfully clear that its utility as a weapon is limited, and there are no sound effects to make it any more convincing. It’s a sad joke of a climax.
At least its star, who has been giving another failed Mamet play artificial respiration, can go home and get some rest. In interviews, the playwright said that Pacino doing China Doll would be as pleasurable as “oral sex,” and he does keep it up. It’s Mamet’s reputation, however, that’s been blown.