Every fan of Al Pacino’s movies knows that he emits the primal scream of the Alpha Male like no other working actor. Whether revealing his suppressed wish to employ a flamethrower, commenting on the quality of Ashley Judd’s posterior, informing numerous officials of a municipal court that it is, in fact, they who are out of order—it’s his signature.
Because there are such strong common elements to these outbursts, it is easy to forget that they also have some range, and that the characters behind them are themselves quite diverse manifestations of man (or, in one case, the Devil) as insecure master. Some of Pacino’s creations are sweet, some cruel; some are brilliant men and some are idiots; some are (most of the time) quiet; some are crusaders; some, though typically troubled, are committed to a vision of the good, while others are effectively nihilists.
Among the sources of suspense in David Mamet’s China Doll is that it is not at first apparent what kind of alpha we are dealing with in Pacino’s Mickey Ross. We meet this disheveled old tiger in his spectacular apartment—with a view, we suspect, of Central Park, if we could see over the balcony—in the midst of a tantrum, berating his personal assistant Carson (Christopher Denham) over what can only be described as billionaire minutiae. Ross’s young girlfriend can’t be located in Toronto, where she has just been flown in Ross’s new jet, the registration for which was unaccountably switched by its manufacturer from Swiss to American, which means that since the plane made an unplanned stop in the U.S., Ross now finds himself on the hook for $5 million in sales tax he was really hoping to avoid, and… well, another day in the life of an oligarch, we think.
For as unpleasant as this all sounds, Ross in his tantrum shows us that he is vulnerable, and when he realizes that he had been unjustly dressing down the well-meaning, efficient Carson because of his own mistaken understanding of a critical fact, his effusive, needy apology is charming, even sweet. He seems desperate for Carson, and us, to like him. For anyone familiar with Mamet’s plays and generally grim view of the nature of men with power, and of the necessarily corrupting quality of money, this opening sequence should set off all the alarm bells—but Ross, in Pacino’s hands, won’t let you get on your guard.
Mamet may be something like the poet laureate of the modern American alpha. He is also well known for being a dedicated partisan of plot. In this respect, China Doll has a showy quality—Pacino and Denham are the only two actors, performing on the same living room set over the course of two act-length scenes: a format very often susceptible to becoming a philosophical dialogue masquerading as a play.
But there’s none of that here. One detects Mamet’s pleasure in providing a demonstration that two men in a room, talking about a cast of invisible characters we never meet, can drive a whole lot of story—this one hinging on the retribution being dealt out by a powerful enemy Mickey has made during his career as a major political donor. The principal device employed here is the phone conversations Mickey conducts over his Bluetooth, which have a naturalizing effect, obscuring the reality that this a play driven by Pacino’s alternately confused or infuriated or pleading monologues.
Mamet and Pacino go way back, at least as far as American Buffalo in the ’80s. Pacino was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as the dark, amoral Ricky Roma in the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross, and recently appeared in a Broadway revival of that play, now as sad-sack Shelley Levene (portrayed in the film by Jack Lemmon). His Golden Globe-winning turn as Phil Spector on HBO was also written and directed by Mamet.
This latest collaboration has a King Learish feel to it, if Lear had got the word early about what happens when you give up power, and decided to push back, hard, right while teetering on the brink. (Indeed, at one point Mickey more or less references Shakespeare’s play.) The production, ably directed by Pam McKinnon, has all of the typical Mamet touches, including the focused banality of both speech and business (billionaires need to pack their iPhone chargers, too!) and the occasional over-compression of plot developments, which tests one’s willingness to suspend disbelief and enjoy the characters. Denham does an able job as Pacino’s straight man, though I’m not sure anyone actually looks at him for most of the play—at least until its harrowing final minutes, when young Carson suddenly acquires a great deal of agency, and we find out just what kind of alpha Mickey is.
Bottom line: If you can get to New York, do you want to hear Pacino interpret Mamet’s line: "It’s gonna be a twister in a trailer park, he wants to f*** with me!"
Of course you do.