It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: When Is a Play Not a Play?

In which Dave Sikula wonders what the hell is up with David Mamet?

In our last meeting, I discussed the shows I had seen on my recent trip to New York – save one, David Mamet’s China Doll.

Little did I calculate then how timely this chapter would be now, since the show has officially opened and the reviews are pretty much what I expected; in short, “What the hell were they thinking?”

There’s an old story (it might be apocryphal, since a quick Google search turned up nothing) that, sometime in the late ‘30s or early ‘40s, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart did one of the their collaborations, but reviews were not felicitous and one read “Kaufman and Hart didn’t have an idea for a play this year, but wrote one anyway.”
My reaction to China Doll was that David Mamet didn’t have an idea for a play, so he didn’t bother to write one.

Pam MacKinnon on her way out of town.

Pam MacKinnon on her way out of town.

One could say that Mr. Mamet is controversial. When he burst in on the scene in the ‘70s, he was exhilarating. Between the swearing and the poetry of his language, he was really like no one we’d ever seen before. From 1973 to 1985, there really wasn’t anyone quite as interesting (Sam Shepard was too sloppy and the really big names like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams had shot their wads.)

In 1985, Glengarry Glen Ross came along, won the Pulitzer – and it was over. His next three plays, Boston Marriage, Bobby Gould in Hell, and Oleanna, were obscure at best, and it’s been downhill from there. (Though I suppose November and Race may have their defenders … )

Mr. Mamet’s books on acting are not without interest, but one of the stupider things he’s said (and I admit that takes in a lot of territory) is that there are no characters in a script. There are words on a page; if the actor just says those words, he’ll guarantee the results. And while, strictly speaking, he’s right, there’s more alchemy involved than that.

In The New York Times recently, there was a feature on how designer Vinny Sainato created the production’s poster. It was an interesting precis in the creative process and how a piece of art like that needs to evolve based on given circumstances. It’s a shame Mr. Mamet didn’t do the same with his own drafts.

Mamet may be the only American playwright who nowadays who can get a straight play produced on Broadway right out of the box – no regional productions, no workshopping, no previous incarnations. (Mr. Shepard might be another, but he seems not to have pursued that avenue – and seems to have, more or less, abandoned writing plays.)

Go on; criticize me. I dare you.

Go on; criticize me. I dare you.

I’ll admit that, in spite of my antipathy to Mr. Mamet’s recent work, I was excited by the prospect of seeing the show – and of seeing Al Pacino in what promised to be a meaty role.

We bought our tickets well in advance – and then the early reports started drifting in: The play was incoherent. Mr. Pacino was having line trouble. Mr. Mamet had skipped town. Audience members were leaving in droves at intermission.

We regretted buying the tickets, but what could we do?

When we arrived at the theatre, one of the first things I saw was director Pam MacKinnon. That she was directing at all was a surprise to me. Mr. Mamet is, if nothing else, a wee bit phallocentric, so the idea of a woman directing one of his shows – and a new script at that – was interesting. As I saw her, though, the look on her face said it all: it was a combination of confusion, frustration, and resignation.

I honestly didn’t know what her job with the production was. The prevailing rumor – which persists even now that the show has opened – was that Mr. Pacino was having line trouble. It’s understandable. He’s 75, and I’d say that 85% of the script is him having cryptic telephone conversations – of which we hear only one side. He talks and talks and talks and talks and talks – all sound and fury signifying nothing. In my experience, anyway, there’s little one can do with an actor who is still struggling to get off-book (like I’m one to talk) in terms of characterization (and if Mr. Mamet is to be believed, he hasn’t written a character, anyway), and as far as staging goes, the blocking seemed to consist of Mr. Pacino walking or sitting anywhere he pleased at any time he wanted. He has enough training that the movement was appropriate, but an audience can watch an actor yammering away on a Bluetooth for only so long.

That Bluetooth is one of the more notorious things about the production. Because of it, the rumor mill was sure that he was being fed his lines through the earpiece. Given the choppy nature of the text and his delivery, though, who the hell knows? (As well as the earpiece, there are two Macs set prominently on the stage, the screens of which are both facing upstage, no doubt so that the scrolling script can’t be seen by the audience.)

But, after all this, what’s the play about? I have no idea. As I said, Mr. Pacino spends the vast majority of the evening (to quote Ben Brantley’s review in The Times) “talking to, variously, [his] lovely young fiancée; a Swedish plane manufacturer; a lawyer, and someone he calls Ruby, a former crony who is close to the Governor of the state, whose father (a former Governor) was [his character’s] mentor.” It has something to do with a plane he bought and will or will not pay taxes on, officials he may or may not have bribed, and arrests that may or may not be made. That’s it. There’s an old (again probably apocryphal) quip about the plot of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: “Nothing happens. Twice.” China Doll’s plot is that nothing happens. At all.
Mr. Brantley’s review begins – begins, mind you – like this:

No matter what his salary is, it seems safe to say that Christopher Denham is the most underpaid actor on Broadway. Mr. Denham – a young man with, I sincerely hope, a very resilient nervous system – is one of a cast of two in China Doll, the saggy new play by David Mamet that was finally opened to critics on Wednesday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, and he is onstage for almost the entire show.

So is – pause for ominous silence – Al Pacino. Now please cue sound effects of chalk scratching on countless blackboards and the ping, ping, ping of an endlessly dripping faucet, and you have some idea of what Mr. Denham must be going through night after night after night.

My wife’s takeaway was that it was almost as though Mr. Mamet were giving one of his famous “fuck yous” to the idea of conventional dramaturgy and deliberately set out to write a script that violated every “rule.” Nothing happens. Most of the play is a man spouting one-sided exposition that never really amounts to anything. There is no character development (though if there are no characters, how can they develop?). There is no real acting to speak of. It all amounts to Mr. Pacino putting himself on display as though he were in a zoo, speaking meaningless lines slowly and haltingly in a desperate attempt to make them mean something.

As we were leaving the theatre, I saw Ms MacKinnon again, a notepad in her hand. I wanted to go up to her and say, “I know what you’re feeling. We’ve all been there.” But no matter how challenged any of us have been with our own productions, I can only imagine the pressures of dealing with a Pulitzer Prize-winner writer and an Oscar-winning actor in a multimillion-dollar production of a play that’s not working. Whatever she was paid wasn’t enough.

The director in happier days.

The director in happier days.

I’ve seen theatrical disasters before (remind me to tell you about the legendary first preview of Bring Back Birdie), but this wasn’t even a trainwreck; it was more in the “Well, there’s two hours of my life I won’t get back” category.

Derek McLane’s set is nice, though.

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