China Doll - A Review

Although still in previews, every seat for China Doll is breathlessly occupied by eager theater-goers, fans, and acolytes.  My seat was perfect for seeing and hearing everything: third row, center.  Pacino performed wonderfully – though it is essentially a one-man piece, but for Carson, the protagonist's assistant, he is onstage and gesticulating and talking for the whole two hours.  You expect someone else, perhaps his paramour, Francine, to appear, but he achieves a full stage-worth of activity and dynamism, all with his inflection and voice, his fluid posture and gait, his mobile facial expressions, and the acrobatics and suppleness of the Mamet river of words canon.

Then, when we gave him a standing O, he smiled beatifically – really surprised, seemingly, and delighted that we were delighted.  It was sweet to see.  Carson also took his bows, but he stood back, as his role was much quieter than that of richie-rich Mickey Ross, the politician's rainmaker and bundler.  One could not help but think of Glengarry Glen Ross, Mamet's voracious meditation on real estate sharks.  (Interesting that his main protagonist here is named Ross, too...)

And outside, a bank of fans thronged two barricades, one on either side of the doors facing 45th  (my bike held pride of place, and held some of them back!) as people awaited Pacino's exit from the backstage door.  One of the Irish ushers, a large, burly, genial fellow, rushed to me and said, "I tried to keep your bike safe," and I was grateful as the crowd wondered what a bike was doing there among those swells.

Having read some of the early reviews, I had been led to expect a touch-and-go production, since some bien-pensants had said Mamet was introducing new lines daily, that Pacino had not learned his lines, that the play was delaying its opening from this week to early December, the story, etc... but all worries were for naught.  It was a polished and spectacular Broadway production, with all the glam people in the seats, and all the glam production values on the stage.

The set design, by Derek McLane, is particularly serviceable and convincing – a huge, high-ceilinged room in a clearly super-luxe building, sleek furnishings, enormous picture windows and all.

The style of life spoken of obliquely, all the calls to lawyers and other moguls, "hondling" deals and dispensing hard-earned sagacities, all worked for a real man of substantial means.  His hair-trigger mood shifts notwithstanding, this is a flesh-and-blood guy, albeit exhausted with his machinations to spirit his fiancée away amid a welter of ankle-bite concerns that threaten to draw major blood.

Through the magic of one-sided telephone conversations and sharp exchanges with Carson, we gather a pixelated composite of a complicated and imperfect mogul.  Listening to people around hypothesizing what kind of man this was, judging from his onstage behaviors and mercurial switches.  Not quite sold on the denouement, frankly, but the people around seemed satisfied; the wrap-up seemed all-too-deus ex machina for me, though one assumes the last minute might be in for some  nuanced adjustments before the official opening in December.

Mamet – of interest to some – very publicly "converted" to Orthodox Jewry some years ago.  It does not appear to have impacted his biting dialogue or cataracts of Machiavellian "capchas" of inky and hellish modern-day business.

Thanks for a gorgeous premium seat, a gorgeous night of theatre, and a flood of wonderment in the undimmed prowess of the scritchy-kritchy playwright, David Mamet.

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