Monday, January 11, 2016

Broadway Review: China Doll with Al Pacino

Christopher Denham and Al Pacino. Photo: Jeremy Daniel
Mamet's Latest with Al Pacino Rings Up Box Office Sales, but Leaves an I.O.U. for Content
 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 - $149.50chinadollbroadway.com800- 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.)

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. and the Episcopal Actors' Guild.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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