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China Doll

David Mamet
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, New York

China Doll is not too far short of a 2-hour solo, allowing New Yorkers to wallow in their love of Al Pacino. He portrays Mickey Ross, a man for whom the adjective arrogant would be a gross understatement.

To be fair, Christopher Denham, playing his PA Carson, gets the odd notable line or raised eyebrow but this really is The Pacino Show.

That is obvious from the opening forays in Pam McKinnon’s production of a piece that, like the private jets at its heart, takes a long time to take off. Instead of real issues, the ultra-rich politician worries at inordinate length about a tax scam that is coming unstuck.

The early skirmishes relate to Mamet’s decision to dress up an inevitably complex plot in mystery and are not easy to follow. In addition, at times it can be difficult to detach Pacino’s personality and excessive mannerisms from those of his larger-than-life character, not to mention a wig like a lively, fluffy puppy that catches the eye at the wrong moments.

One weakness of the set-up is that this playwright thrives on dialogue and, for 90% of the time, only one half of any conversation is audible, since most are conducted on the 'phone. This also delays a full understanding of who the peripheral characters happen to be and how the pieces of the jigsaw are supposed to fit together.

Once the play settles down into politically-charged comedy thriller after the interval, it becomes a typical specimen of Mametiana, if the word has been coined.

In short, we discover that Ross is a seasoned politician (it might be injudicious to suggest any possible real-life sources, although viewers are likely to come to their own conclusions) involved in a dirty tricks campaign orchestrated by the incumbent Governor, a man who just happens to be the son of his old mentor.

The intricate plot involves Ross’s fiancée, a Brit at least a generation younger, pretty rather than bright and trapped in a Canadian hotel by a personal jet issue and apparently random circumstances that are anything but.

Ross cajoles and bullies in equal measure until he is confronted with a series of moral dilemmas and finds a way out that is novel and characteristic of the writer, if somewhat unlikely.

China Doll may not see Mamet at his best but once it takes off after the interval has enough flashes of his trademark use of language and intellectual game playing to make a visit worthwhile. In any event, the worshippers of Al Pacino will ensure a rousing standing ovation every night of the run.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher