Theatre Preview: China Doll

The new play, China Doll, “is the story of a man of means, ready to walk away from it all to start a new life with his young fiancée.” This sounds like exactly the sort of story I would normally avoid. The title doesn’t help any, either. However, it was written by David Mamet and starring Al Pacino, so I thought it was worth giving it a chance.

Since the play is still in previews and over a week from the opening, this shouldn’t really be taken as a “review.” I’ve been trying to get tickets for plays as close to the opening as possible, that wasn’t a choice for this one. Sometimes, you go to a preview and it feels like everything is set and other times it feels like it could develop a bit since. This could get better.

On the other hand, the play is hobbled by the writing. Unless there are some major changes to the script, there’s a ceiling on how much better it could get.

Al Pacino is being savaged in the press. Most of it seems to be based on the same October 29th piece from The New York Post which reports that Pacino can’t remember his lines. I didn’t, myself, notice this during the play. In a piece of the usual internet garbage, in which website writers don’t bother to learning anything new but just repeat what they’ve read on the internet, Maxim turns The Post’s report that Pacino can’t remember his lines to Pacino won’t remember his lines. As someone who has directed plays, that is a tremendously different statement to make about an actor, especially when the play is essentially one long monologue and still in previews. Furthermore, Maxim’s writer Killoran says, “Let this be a lesson to Broadway casting directors that maybe it’s better to hire actual theater actors than movie stars.” I, for one, am far more sick of writers that don’t know what they’re writing about than of movie stars on Broadway. Pacino started as a theatre actor and has a pretty solid theatre resume. The play’s bad, but Pacino doesn’t quite deserve this level of criticism. It’s probably because a lot of people will go to see this because Pacino’s in it and that makes it feel natural to direct your annoyance at him.

It’s the writing.

It’s always the fucking writing. Years ago, I came to the conclusion that if you have a weak script all the good acting and good directing is just a matter of throwing good money after bad. I had the distinct impression that Mamet had a core idea, a character, a basic scenario, but was not able to develop it into a fully realized play. The macho rhythm that comes off almost as poetry that Mamet is known for is only there in spurts. The lines, frankly, are not memorable. Thematically, it’s about how men use politics and business as a form of fighting to establish dominance.

It is staged as a two person play. In the beginning of the play, the main character, Mickey Ross, is upset about the possibility of paying tax on a new plane he has just purchased and is trying to figure a way to get out of it. This goes on for a while, with Ross alternately yelling into the phone and yelling at his assistant. At one point, he gives the assistant a speech about how business is a form of fighting between men and how it is conducted. At one point, I was wondering if it was going to get more interesting than being a play about a rich man who doesn’t want to pay tax. It did. The stakes get much higher and by intermission I was interested how it would develop.

The second act entirely dropped the ball. The ending was ill-fitting and hard to swallow. On the way out of the door, I could hear many of the other theatre goers saying that the ending was awful.

Although it’s clearly a vehicle for Pacino, Mamet says he wrote it for him, the assistant character should have been more clearly developed. I don’t know whether to blame the writer, director or the actor. Probably all three are at fault. A better development of the assistant character might have made the ending seem less hapless. The whole thing feels as if Mamet got himself into a particular position and didn’t quite know what to do.

Mamet has an interesting take on human nature. As a cynic, I can be very sympathetic to his point of view. But in China Doll, his insights only get us a scenario and a character. His lack of emotional depth keeps us from really giving a damn about the character. I don’t want to give away the ending, but, ironically, it feels like Mamet didn’t have the balls to do what he had to do to make his script work. In the dog eat dog world of male dominance that Mamet explores, older men eventually must lose to the younger men. That’s just how the life goes. It felt that Mamet, an older, successful man himself, lacks the courage to look death in the eye. He blinks and loses.

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2 comments
  1. Great review. Sorry to hear Mamet dropped the ball on this. His earlier stuff is terrific. Wasn’t aware he had this coming out. Maybe they’ll tighten it up before the premier.

    • fojap said:

      Part of the reason I concentrated on the writing is that the rumors are that he hasn’t been rewriting anything. The acting I assume will get better during previews, I don’t think it’s fair to dissect that too much right now. There were promising moments with the acting. If I were the director, I’d work on the assistant. It would strengthen the overall feel of the play to not have this obviously weak link standing on stage. I almost feel bad for the actor because it’s a thankless role.

      I’m ambivalent about Mamet. When he’s good he’s great but he has more than his fair share of mediocre stuff. I haven’t seen enough of his later work to say if his earlier stuff was better than his later work, but that’s what the woman sitting next to me said. I’ve always found that better written stuff is easier to remember, so that the actors’ difficulty with lines is unsurprising to me. With some well written pieces it seems as if no other word could have come next.

      The acting will tighten up. Unfortunately, the second act needs a total rewrite.

      Interesting, I noticed a few weeks ago that a new play coming up early next year had the same title as a documentary that featured the daughter of one of my mother’s friends. I thought, “Naw, it can’t be the same.” Today, I looked to see what other new plays were coming and, indeed, it’s a musical based on the documentary. I’m so surprised.

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