NEW YORK (AP) — There's no understudy for Al Pacino in David Mamet's new Broadway play "China Doll" — and nor could there be.
No one else could possibly fit into the main character — a blustery, charming and venal political mover and shaker — like Pacino. The part has been tailored for him like the snappy three-piece Georgio Armani suit he lounges in.
And while the Oscar- and Tony-winner is impossible to stop watching — mostly because he never leaves the stage and also because the only other character is an assistant — the play itself is a meandering one-note character study of a doomed man.
"China Doll," which opened Thursday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, is basically a series of one-sided conversations between Pacino's king maker Mickey Ross and various others in the 1 percent income bracket: his lawyer, much-younger lover, hotel employees, luxury private jet company officials and other bigwigs.
We meet Ross in a sort of well-appointed limbo, in a beautifully furnished, tasteful apartment by scenic designer Derek McLane. He's poised to run away from his dog-eat-dog existence — "Walking away with the brass ring and the pretty girl," he says — but his new jet has been impounded. Thus begins an interminable series of conversations about plane tail numbers, sales tax and jet registration.
Pacino is, at this point in his career, unable to be anything but Pacino, equal parts "Hoo-ah!" from "Scent of a Woman" and the satanic figure in "Devil's Advocate." He's a glib, profane, funny bully. (But when he talks to his lady friend, a wonderful tender, weakness emerges.)
Otherwise, Pacino is predictably unpredictable: You never know when he'll handle something with menace or mockery. He drags out syllables to their breaking point and hurls verbal grenades that sound as innocuous as "Well, I had a vision."
The only other character is Ross' assistant, played with deference and efficiency by Christopher Denham, who schedules incoming and outgoing calls. Pacino does a deft job of juggling them, using a Bluetooth headpiece. (In one preview, when the handover was bobbled, Pacino seamlessly recovered and cheerfully add-libbed into the earpiece, "Ruby, I didn't know where you were.")
Ross uses pauses in the frantic phone conversation to teach his eager younger assistant about how business and politics really work. ("There's a lot of foolish people out there — many of them vote," is one nugget that gets a big applause.) But all that talk of tail numbers has undermined any rising rhythm between the two men.
Director Pam MacKinnon has kept the tension building as the walls slowly close around Ross, whose sharp-elbowed past is coming back to haunt him. Call it assassination by telephone. But even she can't rescue the farcical, out-of-context ending.
The title is never alluded to but it might very well be about Ross himself. As insulated and well-connected as he is, even masters of the universe can be as delicate as a china doll.