Playbill On Opening Night: "When Al Brings It, It's Palpable," Says China Doll's Director

News   Playbill On Opening Night: "When Al Brings It, It's Palpable," Says China Doll's Director David Mamet's new drama China Doll has made headlines since it began. Despite it being a surefire hit at the box office, audience reaction prompted the creative team to delay its Broadway opening — and now its director speaks out on opening night.
Pam MacKinnon
Pam MacKinnon


For most of the two hours you spend at the Schoenfeld Theatre watching Al Pacino do what appears to be an Olympic event in acting, you are waiting for him to say it.

He said it when he was Michael Corleone in "The Godfather: Part III," and he looks like he's on the brink of saying it again as Mickey Ross in China Doll. Like Michael (only more so), Mickey is a captain of industry and politics—the corrupt divisions of those, of course—but he has finally had enough. He has fallen in love, and that changes a man (if not necessarily a corrupt man), only he's timed his late-life crisis too late. The government has taken his plane and passport and is closing in on him.

Can you hear the line now? "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." Somehow, David Mamet can't bring himself to recycle that 25-year-old line, no matter how much aged angst Pacino can probably bring to it now, but the playwright has no qualms about painting the actor into basically the same Corleone corner.

And that comes with a rushing torrent of words to tote for a 75-year-old actor, who keeps looking in the wings back and forth like he's about ready to cross Avenue Cue. But it has to be said that the audience is reverent, riveted and with him all the way.

It's lonely up there, too, at the top. There's only a well-groomed underling around (Christopher Denham) to field his calls, do his biding and keep him on relative track and informed. But, it turns out, this protege could bear some watching. The play's new ending, which was installed only a week ago, goes a bit lighter on the bloodshed.  

But there's another presence on that stage, too—unseen by design—helping the star carrying this word-heavy burden the theatrical distance: director Pam MacKinnon.

"Working with Al Pacino has really been a tremendous experience for me," she wastes no time in saying. "He's such an on-fire, moment-to-moment kind of an actor, and he just has an incredible work ethic—I really, really value that.

"One thing I really love about a directing career is that every production I take on is completely different. You walk into a situation, sometimes thinking it's one thing and then learning it's something else, but I feel I've learned a lot about acting."

She's not kidding herself why she's there and has no problem with star-polishing. "My primary job is to create an environment where Al can go deep and be confident and strong enough to swing for the fences. When he does that, every single person in the theatre is hit with something that you just don't experience that often.

"It's probably an 1,100-seat house all the way back to the mezzanine, and when Al brings it, it's palpable. So that's my job—to make sure that I both manage what we're rehearsing when and why and have those dressing-room conversations and have that rehearsal time available to him—and, you know, get him out there."

Producer Jeffrey Richards got Tony-winning work from MacKinnon directing the last revival of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and urged her to meet with Mamet and Pacino about China Doll. "I first met with Dave to talk about this play about two-and-a-half years ago. Two months after that, I met Al. I don't think the meetings were ever about whether a man or a woman should direct the play. It was about ‘This seems like a valid person to have in the room with us.' And we were off."

MacKinnon wasn't keen about putting the piece together in New York, where the press could peer over the fence and pepper them with little gossipy items in print.

"I just don't look over there because we don't have time—plus, I don't have the emotional resolve or interest to go down that path. I haven't read anything, but I've been told a lot of stuff is out there. What happens in our rehearsal hall is a living, honest moment that we get through, and then go on to bigger and greater things.

"Delivering any new play is difficult, but to do it in this spot-lit neighborhood is very hard. That's why we started working on it and having readings two years ago. I've directed about 30 world premieres, and about a third to a half of those have been Off-Broadway. This is the first time I did a Broadway show from the ground up."

Her two 2012 Tony winners—Clybourne Park and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—were more drawn-out affairs. Clybourne Park premiered at Playwrights Horizons here, then went to L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum and London before it was beached on Broadway. "Virginia Woolf was not built with any intent to work on Broadway," she points out. "That was Steppenwolf, then Arena Stage, and, a year later, Broadway."

Her next Broadway project is going that route, too. She's helming a musical version of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's charming 2001 French film, "Amelie." Playwright Craig Lucas (The Light in the Piazza, An American in Paris) did the adaptation, and Daniel Messe, the principal songwriter for the indie rock band Hem, did the songs with Tuck Everlasting lyricist Nathan Tyson. Debuting as choreographer is Sam Pinkleton.

"We did the world premiere on it right before I went into rehearsal for China Doll," MacKinnon recalls. "It opened, I think, Sept. 12 at Berkeley Rep, and then I was in rehearsal for China Doll Sept. 14. Right now, that seems like a long time ago.

"A lot of theatre owners came out to Berkeley to see it, and we are planning to continue to move forward with it. Probably after Christmas, the writing team and I will be rolling up our sleeves again. We maaaaaay be looking at next season."

Samantha Barks, in Audrey Tautou's star-making role, and Aida's John Hickok head the cast and will continue in those roles when the production takes its next big step.

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