David Mamet and Al Pacino’s ‘China Doll’ Rat-a-Tats Without the Tat

There's an interesting play somewhere in the thin structure of David Mamet's China Doll, but not even a dutiful performance by Al Pacino can bring it to life.

“I’ll tell you what,” Mickey Ross (Al Pacino) says in the second scene of David Mamet’s newest play, China Doll: “I’m getting old.”

Like most Mamet characters, it’s hard to take much of what Ross says as truth, but this line is the most honest admission in China Doll. “Old” here manifests at three levels: 1. the character of Ross himself, 2. the bedraggled Pacino, who has quite a lot to do in the play, and 3. Mamet himself who, since 1999’s Boston Marriage, has taken his signature “Mametspeak” and filtered it through numerous different genre experiments. Boston Marriage, one of Mamet’s rare all-female plays, riffs on the Wildean drawing room comedy; Romance (2005) and November (2008) are joke-a-minute farces; and The Anarchist (2012) explores right and wrong in the style of the Platonic dialogue. Though there are flashes of brilliance in some of these works, the Mamet most people know — the profane poet of works like Glengarry Glen Ross (1984) and Speed-the-Plow 1988) — has left the building.

Mamet deserves credit for one thing, though: he hasn’t lost any ambition. Even when he falters with new forms (especially the turgid Anarchist, which only lasted one week on Broadway), he perseveres nonetheless. For all of its follies, China Doll, which has a limited run at Manhattan’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, is unlike anything Mamet has written before.

The play is a two-hander, with Christopher Denham performing as Ross’ assistant, Carson. However, the repartee between Ross and Carson is a minor point in the scheme of China Doll, as much of the play consists of Ross talking to his friends and foes (more of the latter) over a Bluetooth earpiece. Carson does Ross’ bidding, fetching him documents and linking him up with the right people over the phone, but is given little else to do.

Some of China Doll‘s best moments come when Ross gives Carson “lessons” on the nature of business; in these asides, Mamet’s cynical wit comes out. “We should think of business as a sexual transaction?” Carson asks, to which Ross quips: “Only if you want to get rich.” Speaking about the governor of New York, his political and personal enemy, Ross tells Carson, “There’s a lot of foolish people out there — many of them vote.”

These scenes with Carson, regrettably, are the sideshows of China Doll. (That is, until the end. More on that later.) The bulk of the play has Pacino pacing about the stage, barking orders to far-off-lawyers and reassuring his young fiancée Frankie, who is stuck in a Toronto hotel, that they will be able to get away on their new $60 million plane soon enough.

For an actor of any skill level, the role of Mickey Ross would be a challenge, which holds true for the seasoned Pacino, who was last on Broadway for the excellent 2012 revival of Glengarry Glen Ross. Pacino has to be able to create a distinctive personality for Ross, all the while conveying the words and personalities of people that only he has access to through his Bluetooth. In the abstract, China Doll sounds like a rigorous but doable challenge; in performance, the play outstays its welcome. This two scene and nearly two hour play has, at most, enough dramatic momentum for one act.

The plot, however, is not without its intrigues. The curtains open to Ross’ luxurious Manhattan apartment at nighttime. Ross is planning to leave the country with Frankie on that extravagant private plane, custom-designed by Frankie herself, purchased from a Swiss company called Aerstar. Upon making final preparations, Ross hits a snag: Aerstar painted a United States tail number on the plane, and en route to Toronto the plane’s warning light activated, requiring to touch down on US soil before crossing airspace into Canada. The consequence of this is that Ross is now on the line for $5 million in taxes owed to the US government, a liability he thought he had avoided by buying from a Swiss company and deliberately avoiding bringing the plane into the US.

The reasons why the warning light went on and why the Swiss painted a US tail number rather than a Swiss one are never made clear, but Ross suspects something foul is up. He blames the governor of New York, whom he only refers to as “the Kid”, believing that he is trying to gin up anti-wealth rhetoric for the forthcoming election. Ross gives money to the governor’s opponent, which he does not see as reason for retaliation: “But you might explain to him,” he tells a lawyer over the phone, “I’m not his enemy. I’m just on the other side.”

As the complications barring Ross’ ability to leave continue to mount up, Ross plans for the worst. He tells Frankie, “Babe, it’s just ‘The Old Life.’ Reaching out to drag one back.” When she continues to protest over the phone, he assures her:

It’s just some old friends down here wanted to play Ringolevio. But I ain’t playing… “Ringolevio?” It’s a game we used to play. (Pause.) Well you can’t learn it. (Pause.) ‘Cause you have to learn it in the streets.

With Mamet, of course, “games” are never just games: they are the organizing operation of society and, in China Doll‘s case, business. “Chess and checkers. My move, your move — that’s all there is,” Ross says to Carson. There are flashes of vintage Mamet throughout China Doll in lines like these, and especially in Pacino’s performance.

Indeed, Mamet dedicated the play to Pacino, whom he wrote the role exclusively for, and it’s no wonder why. Few other actors get the Mamet cadence as well as Pacino, who has brought the playwright’s words to life on stage in the 1981 revival of American Buffalo and in film, his Oscar-nominated turn in 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross. China Doll is a portrait of a tough guy, an archetype that Mamet has chronicled in his best plays. Following the cerebral-to-a-fault The Anarchist, this play does feel like a start of a return for Mamet — but he doesn’t quite get there.

Mamet, Technology, and the Stage

Prior to its 4 December opening date, China Doll attracted media speculation over the alleged use of teleprompters by Pacino. (This problem has also come up with other plays this Broadway season, namely the Bruce Willis-led Misery.) At the performance I attended on 14 January, it did appear that Pacino’s eyes were regularly gravitating toward two entryways stage left and right, as well as two laptop computers conveniently located on the set. Admittedly, Pacino’s task is to re-create how a person would talk over the phone, which means he shouldn’t necessarily be staring at the audience all the time. Yet this is no excuse to not learn lines, if this is indeed the case, and when so much of China Doll‘s success hinges on the performance of its central player, teleprompters sap the energy of out a play that desperately needs it.

Still, Pacino gives it his best, and even hits some pulse-raising high notes. At the end of scene one, Ross yells at a lawyer about what he will do to the governor: “‘Or what?’ Or I will put an asterisk next to his name, in the record books. That small pointed star. You know what it means? It means disgrace. And I will shame this little pimp so badly his children will change their names.” The scene comes to a close after this very Pacino (and very Mamet) monologue, and the audience can’t get enough. On the 14 January performance, the crowd whoops and cheers; one commenter, mistaking Broadway for a Lynyrd Skynrd concert, shouted, “Turn it up!”

Successes like this notwithstanding, just as it is with Ross, it’s easy to see through the cracks of Pacino’s peformance. Tough guy gesticulations can’t gloss over what appear to be quick glances at teleprompters.

Even if Pacino has memorized all of his lines perfectly, however, it’s difficult to say how much more successful China Doll would be as a play. Mamet’s most distinctive contribution to 20th and 21st century theatre is his dialogue, the inimitable “Mametspeak”. What makes that talk so compelling is its rhythmic give-and-take, its fiery rat-a-tat. Because the audience only gets Ross’ side of the phone conversations, the “give” is gone, the “tat” nowhere to be heard.

There’s something to be said for the clever usage of technology on stage, but very little is said on that subject in China Doll. Mamet clearly wanted to give Pacino a lot to work with, but by doing away with a compelling counterweight to Ross’ lines, he gives the audience a skeleton of a play, rather than a fully-fleshed drama in its own right. The lawyers, politicians, and Swiss plane manufacturers Ross speaks to could have been interesting characters, but when they’re filtered through Ross, they are nothing but phantoms. Denham gives as much effort to his role as he possibly could, but as Ross’ underling, he’s a sounding board rather than a proper character.

Spoilers ahead.

Carson does get his chance, though. China Doll‘s controversial ending has Carson threaten to send Frankie and Ross to jail unless Ross turns himself in for the tax evasion on the plane and the possession of documents to be used for blackmail against the governor. This transformation from subordinate to usurper is a classic Mamet trope, used most notably in Speed-the-Plow and Race (2009). As with the underlings in those plays, Carson takes the lessons his superior gives him to heart — although not in the way that was intended.

Before Carson can get away with the plan, however, Ross picks up the Chekhov’s gun of China Doll, if you will — a small-scale model of Ross’ plane sent to him by Aerstar — and beats Carson unconscious. This aggressive finalé is the main instance of the text being changed for the stage: in the script, Ross beats Carson down and then begins cutting himself with the model plane, yelling, “Will no one help an old man?” as a loud knocking emits from the side stage doors. For the Gerald Schoenfeld performance, Ross simply knocks Carson out and exits. The conniving businessman gets away.

Mickey Ross: The Brain-Dead Businessman

In 2008, Mamet published an extremely heavy-handed and ill-thought article entitled “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal” in The Village Voice. This article marks the crystallizing instance of Mamet coming out as a “conservative libertarian” in the style of Glenn Beck. Since then, it has become something of a critical crutch to read Mamet’s plays in light of his newfound politics.

China Doll has received such treatment. In a review for The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney writes, “Mamet talks down to his audience, clubbing us over the head with our colossal stupidity for resenting the obscenely wealthy when the play suggests it’s the hypocritical liberal politicos whose Machiavellian shenanigans truly deserve our contempt.” Jesse Green argues in a piece for Vulture, “With China Doll, he appears at 68 to have completed a transition, bringing his dramaturgy fully in line with his outlook.” Green warrants his claim by writing, “Mickey, whatever his flaws, is after all the hero, and Pacino plays him as such, with great good spirits and glamour. The villains here are regulation, big government, and the foolish populace that tolerates one and elects the other.”

To Rooney and Green’s credit, there are places where Ross’ outlook and Mamet’s own do overlap. Ross muses in the second scene, “You know what politics is, Carson? Pawing through shit. Looking for Other People’s Money,” a thought that exists in a long-winded form in Mamet’s straw-man-driven book on politics, The Secret Knowledge. However, to read Ross as a “hero” is stretching it. There are very few heroes in Mamet’s world, and there are none in China Doll. The play ends with Ross committing a murder.

Early in the play he also tells Frankie, his only humanizing element: “Didn’t I put your first pair of shoes on your feet? When you were selling matches in Trafalgar Square. Covered in rags… and don’t you forget it, or I’ll give you back to the gypsies. I saved the receipt.” Despite his suave lines about the equivocal relation between politics and business, Ross is not a good guy. One can’t help but wonder why it takes almost two hours of the play for Carson to stage a coup.

If Mamet intended China Doll to be the depiction of a man unjustly spurned by government interests, he failed colossally. One of the consequences of having the action of the play occur off-stage, relayed to the audience only through Pacino talking on the Bluetooth, is that the audience has no way of verifying the truth of Ross’ claims. Any statements made by the off-stage characters are filtered through Ross’ morally dubious personality. As such, when Ross’ world falls apart, with far-off lawyers and vague politicians threatening to undermine his escape, his monologuing sounds increasingly like the ranting of a delusional madman who believes everyone is out to get him. China Doll is a far more successful satire of Fox News’ backwards understanding of “class warfare” than it is a polemic against an overreaching government.

Yet even if taken as satire, China Doll is no success. Leaving the voices of Ross’ interlocutors off-stage does create an air of mystery about Ross’ dealings, but it’s not a mystery compelling enough to bring the dramatic tension of the play from a simmer to a boil. When Ross thwacks Carson upside the head with the model airplane, it comes across as an attempt to inject life into a story whose context has eluded the audience. Had Mamet written a third character, who could perhaps be onstage in a scene different from Ross and Carson’s, there would be more for the spectators to latch on to.

In its Broadway iteration, though, China Doll is a portrait of a con artist who’s been playing the game for far too long, and like its main character, China Doll tries to wring out vivacity where there is little. Forget “chess and checkers”; this play is tiddlywinks for Mamet.