|Christopher Denham and Al Pacino. Photo: Jeremy Daniel|
By Lauren Yarger
It’s all about money and what it can buy. Only China Doll, the latest from Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed the Plow), hasn’t made that theme even remotely interesting.
Paying a lot of money to have a star headline the show hasn’t worked either. Academy-Award winner Al Pacino is on the boards, but even he can’t make two hours of listening to someone talk on a phone interesting. In fact, reports are that he has a lot of trouble remembering all the mind-numbing dialogue (film actors tend to deal with shorter segments of a script as they are being filmed and don’t have to memorize the entire script at once). The opening was pushed back, apparently to give him some more time and to make some improvements to the script. It didn’t work.
Actual phones were abandoned for a Bluetooth prop, which apparently doubles as a speaker by which he is fed lines. There also are two laptops on display in the apartment set designed by Derek McLane (at first I thought the oddly appointed set was a VIP lounge in the airport since it doesn’t look like a Manhattan apartment of someone who can afford a $60 million plane.) Since Pacino seems to be looking at the monitors when fishing for lines, they probably are TelePrompTer devices. The day I attended, captioning was provided for the hearing impaired and a quick check of the screen confirmed that Pacino’s lines didn’t always match the script.
Changing that script wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, however. . .
Pacino plays very wealthy Mickey Ross, who has just bought a new toy: a multi-million-dollar jet. He is used to buying whatever he wants – including politicians, it seems. He hits a snag when the plane, manufactured in Switzerland, is impounded in Toronto with his young British fiancé aboard. Somehow the Swiss tail numbers were changed to a US registration and when it was forced to touch down here for a technical issue, everything changed making Ross liable for $5 million in taxes.
The rest of the play is a repeat of those facts – ad nauseum – as Mickey speaks on the phone with the plane’s manufacturer, his lawyer and his upset fiancé, who has been subjected to a strip search by immigration officials.
Helping him place the calls is his assistant, Carson (Christopher Denham), who manages to look interested as he stands on stage watching Pacino talk. Director Pam MacKinnon (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), offers little help, but then there isn’t a lot an actor can do while waiting to deliver lines like, “Yes, sir,” after 15 minutes of monologue by the other actor. (It strikes me that Denham’s understudy might have the best paying gig for the fewest lines ever.)
Denham (“Master Harold”… and the Boys, Argo, “Manhattan”) impresses in that he manages to make us remember that he is on stage at all and is able to bring some plausibility when his character suddenly offers a twist to the plot requiring the services of Fight Director Thomas Schall. Well, to what little plot there is.
We get a sense that the tax situation might be payback for some of Mickey’s corrupt political dealings, and there might be a message there about not always being able to control things with money, but we’re not really sure. In fact, as we were leaving the theater, audience members who stuck it out were questioning each other about the purpose of the play.
“Do you think there was some symbolism there we just didn’t get?” one woman asked her companion.
No, ma’am, there wasn’t, as the playwright forgot to put it in there.
In all honesty, however, I did not notice a mass exodus at intermission, as had been reported as a regular occurrence. I guess if your motivation to buy a $150 ticket is to see your favorite film star on stage, you want your money’s worth. If you want to see a sharply written play for two men written by a Pulitzer-Prize winner, however, go down the street and see Hughie by Eugene O’Neill opening next month.
China Doll runs at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W 45th St., NYC, through Jan. 31.Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday - Saturday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 pm; Sunday at 3 pm; Additional performance Jan. 17 at 7 pm. Tickets are $72 - $149.50: chinadollbroadway.com; 800- 432-7250.
Christians might also like to know:
--God's name taken in vain
-- Language (though only a few, instead of a steady raid of F-bombs we usually associate with Mamet's plays.)