David Mamet has written a devastating portrait of a David Koch/Sheldon Adelson-style tycoon whose deep pockets fund at least one prominent governor. In essence, that portrait is Mamet’s new play, “China Doll,” which stars Al Pacino as Mickey Ross and opens Friday at Broadway’s Schoenfeld Theatre.
There’s only one other character in the play, Ross’ assistant (Christopher Denham), who is merely a prop for most of the play’s two hours — until he becomes something much more. Shades of Karen, the on-the-make secretary, from “Speed-the-Plow”? Not quite.
What’s most fascinating about “China Doll” is Mamet’s leisurely drawn-out exposition. For most of the first act, Ross sounds much like a housewife complaining on the phone about a newly installed carpet that isn’t the right color now that it’s in her living room.
Ross’ new toy, however, isn’t an expensive rug. It’s a $60 million-dollar private jet that, for some reason, is now impounded in Toronto, where it was supposed to have taken him and his young fiancée to London. Ross occasionally lectures his assistant on when to be aggressive and when to be submissive in making a deal. Otherwise, he’s on the phone — actually, it’s an earpiece — to the manufacturer, a lawyer, or his fiancée to complain about the plane.
Frankly, I wish I’d known of the character’s Koch/Adelson aspirations from the beginning. It’s a very slow burning first act under Pam MacKinnon’s direction, but along the way Ross drops tidbits about “the governor” and his father, “the old man,” who used to be governor, and how “the boy” isn’t exactly being loyal to Ross despite his major fundraising efforts. The young governor is looking for “an issue” to get re-elected, and as it turns out that that issue is Ross.
Of course, Ross isn’t just wealthy enough to afford political mega-donations and a $60 million-dollar jet. He’s a crafty con man who has in his possession a file of papers that will destroy the governor. Mamet shows us that file in the second act, but we never learn what’s in it, just as we never learn Ross’ political affiliation or how he made his fortune or what crime he’s committed that has stranded his jet in Toronto. It’s as if Alfred Hitchcock didn’t let us know what the McGuffin was.
The carefully parsed-out details that we do learn, however, make for a riveting second act. Much of the language is sublime and there are great one liners along the way: “Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die.” But would “China Doll” work without Pacino or a star of his caliber? No way.
Pacino has always been a showy actor on stage and in film (“Godfather II” being the exception). He never hides his technique, which is what makes him so entertaining to watch.
In “China Doll,” he brings out his entire arsenal of shtick: the popping eyes, extremes in vocal register, exaggerated dipthongs, overly punctuated words. At times, he recalls John Barrymore at the end of his film career. Like Barrymore, who read from cue cards on the set, Pacino doesn’t just glance but makes a habit of staring into the wings. And he’s great doing all of it.
Like the old, crumpled Barrymore, Ross also is a force of nature, now at the end of his career. He tells us he’s tired and just wants to marry his bimbo fiancée and escape to some island. Mamet lets us believe that fantasy, but only for a moment. Just before the curtain falls, Ross attempts the ultimate con, and it’s a game played by a true master.