Al Pacino is not an actor of much breadth but he stakes a narrow territory deeply, and that can be brilliant to watch onstage. China Doll, his shaky new Broadway vehicle, by David Mamet, offers flashes of that brilliance between long mucky passages in which he appears to be hunting for the narrative, if not the next line. (He’s 76, and Mamet has given him what amounts to a 10,000-word speech; you try it.) The familiar Pacino mannerisms are all in place — the constant pa-pow! choreography of the hands, the hangdog moues, the sudden mid-phrase changes in volume. But this is no Serpico or Sonny Wortzik, fighting the man; Mickey Ross is more at the Roy Cohn end of Pacino’s spectrum. He is the man. In fact, he’s a billionaire who lacks nothing, not even a beautiful young quasi-fiancée, bought and paid for: “I saved the receipt,” he teases her. Alas for him, and for us, that quasi-fiancée, Francine Pierson, who may be the porcelain plaything of the title, is merely on the phone, not in the stupendous stratospheric apartment (courtesy of set designer Derek McLane) where the play takes place. No, Francine is stuck in Toronto, in a hotel, under an assumed name, and therein lies Mickey’s problem, or what passes for one.
The construction of China Doll is most peculiar. Very little conflict unreels in our presence. The only character we encounter directly, other than Mickey, is his pearl-gray beanpole of a right-hand man, so suavely deferential it may well be a Downton Abbey joke that his name is Carson. For the most part, Carson (perfectly executed by Christopher Denham) does only what Mickey commands, often before being asked. Through much of the action, his back is literally turned to us. The actual conflict, almost as in a Greek drama, must therefore happen elsewhere, if not literally offstage then in the modern version of offstage, which is to say during the series of phone calls that constitute perhaps three-quarters of the play. At first Mickey's monologues — actually dialogues in which we get only one side — concern a problem of parsimony: He wishes to avoid paying $5 million in sales tax on the $60 million private jet being delivered to him from Switzerland. (That’s why he sent it to Toronto, with Francine onboard.) But gradually, in conversations with the salesman, with his lawyer, and with a crony who now works for the opportunistic governor, the situation devolves to the point that Francine, a British national, may be marooned in Canada and Mickey may be entrapped in a tax-fraud charge.
If this sounds a little dull, well, get used to it; the same banal information — about the plane’s registry, the girlfriend’s whereabouts, the minutiae of international commerce — keeps being repeated, as if on a loop, to the exclusion of any traditional development. It’s hard to figure what Mamet is up to. Is he just temporizing to fill a decent two-hour running time? Does he enjoy making concrete poetry from the found vocabulary of “tail numbers” and “informations”? (Mamet’s rhythmic vigor and piquant imagery are still a thrill when he can be bothered to produce them: “You tell that fool at Aerstar, he wants to fuck with me I’ll give ’im the plane back, and he’s going home by Weeping Cross.”) Or, as gradually begins to seem more likely, is he actually trying to impress us with the difficult and noble work of being a billionaire, with so many details to manage, underlings to strong-arm, and pleasures to prioritize?
This does not seem so far-fetched when you consider Mamet’s real-world politics; formerly a “brain-dead liberal,” he at some point around the turn of the century came out as a pro-gun, free-market, hard-line conservative, plumping for Romney in 2012. His plays during the period underwent a similar change, switching focus from the powerless underclass desperados of early masterpieces like American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross to the petit bourgeois spinners, political correctniks, and vindictive relativists of November, Race, and The Anarchist. (None of that sour trio lasted a year on Broadway.) Now, with China Doll, he appears at 68 to have completed a transition, bringing his dramaturgy fully in line with his outlook. Mickey, whatever his flaws, is after all the hero, and Pacino plays him as such, with great good spirits and glamour. (In Jess Goldstein’s black duds and his own parted-curtains hairstyle, he looks like a chic undertaker.) The villains here are regulation, big government, and the foolish populace that tolerates one and elects the other. This libertarian underpinning is slightly obfuscated so as not to offend the audience outright, and anyway Mamet’s vituperation remains funny, even if it has switched sides. Wondering how the governor, a Democrat to judge from his rhetoric, would even know the “people” he rhapsodizes, Mickey says that “the only time he ever saw them they were waxing his car.”
But eventually you can’t help facing the fact that Mamet has built what plot there is around the hypocrisy and venality of liberal politicians; the story is rigged to make Mickey, of all people, a victim. I suppose it’s not an impossible scenario — but if an innocent plutocrat is ruined, in real life, by government overreaching more than once in a decade, I’ll eat my Occupy Wall Street hat. Anyway, China Doll doesn’t provide convincing evidence even for its own case study, and Pacino’s star quality prevents us from inferring any evidence on our own. (A character who does what Mickey ends up doing would, in real life, be a monster, not a mensch.) This gives the play the air of a one-percenter paranoiac fantasy, the kind of thing Mamet’s political opposite David Hare nailed in Skylight: “Self-pity of the rich! No longer do they simply accumulate. Now they want people to line up and thank them as well.”
Whatever one thinks of that sort of attitude as policy, as the basis of a drama it’s disastrous. Emotions aren’t susceptible to free-market inducements. How much can one care about the machinations of the super-rich, which may spell the difference between one private jet and another, between one large but easily borne tax bill and one slightly larger? The two-bit crooks and real-estate mountebanks of Mamet’s early years, however disreputable, had their own rent and mortgages (and sometimes even lunches) on the line. Not so Mickey, who himself realizes, too late, that it would have cost him nothing, or nothing noticeable, to avoid the problem that eventually undoes him. Perhaps what Mamet is getting at, then, is hubris, the self-knowledge that comes only when it can do no good. If so, the production, directed by Pam MacKinnon, clearly hamstrung by the script’s severe limitations, barely acknowledges the possibility, with its stuttering pace and sudden botch of a final curtain. If China Doll is a Greek tragedy, it’s one about a man and a condition the Greeks would never have recognized as worthy.
China Doll is at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre Row through January 31.