If the creative collaboration of actor Al Pacino and playwright David Mamet didn't already rank as one for theatrical ages, the opening Broadway premiere of China Doll seals it. He is one of a handful of actors — Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy are two others — that automatically come to mind when one considers the author's oeuvre.
"For me over the years the relationship and the collaboration with David Mamet has been one of the richest and most rewarding," Pacino told Hollywood Reporter recently. "We've done four projects together and the opportunity to create a new character in the David Mamet canon was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. So Dave gave me China Doll, a new play he had written for me and it blew me away… one of the most daunting and challenging roles I've been given to explore onstage. It's a special gift to originate a role in the theatre, especially written by such a formidable writer, and I haven't done that in a long, long time."
Pacino is very faithful when it comes to authors. When he returns to Broadway, it is typically in service of a small circle of playwrights, most of them deceased. Over the past 30 years, he has done Shakespeare once (The Merchant of Venice), Oscar Wilde's Salome twice (once in rep with Ira Lewis' Chinese Coffee), Eugene O'Neill once (Hughie), and David Mamet three times: American Buffalo in 1983, Glengarry Glen Ross in 2012 and now China Doll. On film, he played Ricky Roma in the 1992 movie adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross.
The Mamet-Pacino partnership began with American Buffalo. The actor played the role of the frustrated, small-time crook Walter "Teach" Cole first in New Haven in 1980, then Off-Broadway in 1981 and finally on Broadway in 1983.
Pacino, who was at the height of his film fame at the time, certainly didn't need to do the play. But perhaps the play needed him. American Buffalo established Mamet as a major talent when it ran Off-Broadway in 1976, winning critical praise and a few awards. It then moved to Broadway. But the Pacino version, coming just a few years later, helped to cement the play's reputation as a modern classic.
When the Pacino production premiered in 1980 at the Long Wharf Theatre, New York Times critic Mel Gussow seemed to recognize that the actor and the playwright were made for each other. He called Teach "a role that seems made-to-measure for his talent."
"Without losing the character's willfulness, Mr. Pacino makes him seem perplexed," Gussow continued. "He reactions are intuitive rather than conceptualized. Fueled by frustration, he is unpredictable, and his act of violence against Bobby seems almost accidental."
When the production moved to New York, critic Frank Rich wrote, "Mr. Mamet can also be quite funny — a fact that wasn't entirely apparent in Ulu Grosbard's tough 1977 Broadway staging of this work. Mr. Grosbard's production hissed like a rattlesnake: audiences came away startled, even shocked, by the scatological language and the violence that erupts in Act II. The new revival starring Al Pacino…leaves another impression, for Arvin Brown, the director, shows us the other side of Mr. Mamet's verbal coinage. When the play's three men hatch their ill-fated get-rich-quick ‘business' scheme — the robbery of a rare Buffalo nickel — their pathetic machinations now seem more absurd than vicious."
Pacino didn't return to Mamet for a decade, and then it was on film, playing hotshot real estate salesman Ricky Roma (a role created on stage by Joe Mantegna) in the movie of Glengarry Glen Ross. It was reported at the time that, in the final days of filming, Pacino told the cast and crew that the weeks shooting the move had been the best work experience of his life and reportedly cried at the occasion.
Three decades after American Buffalo, Pacino finally signed on for another Mamet Broadway outing, this time playing the central role of hapless salesman Shelley "The Machine" Levine in Glengarry Glen Ross. The show proved a box-office hit before even opening, collected $6 million in advance.
The reviews were mixed. Ben Brantley, in the New York Times, wrote, "But why would anyone turn over important business to someone who speaks as falteringly as this guy does? Looking like a bag man coming off a bender, Shelly talks in a fretful, rambling singsong voice that sometimes gets stuck on a word like a phonograph needle." The show was a commercial smash nonetheless and easily recouped its investment — despite the fact that another revival of the drama had been on Broadway only a few seasons previous.
In 2013, Pacino starred as the title pop genius (and convicted murderer) in "Phil Spector," which was both written and directed by Mamet.
China Doll, which began Oct. 21 at the Schoenfeld Theatre, is the first Mamet stage role Pacino has originated.
Mamet described China Doll as being "about a wealthy man, his young fiancé, and an airplane. The man has just bought a new plane as a wedding present for the girl. He intends to go into semiretirement, and enjoy himself. He's in the process of leaving his office, and is giving last minute instructions to his young assistant. He takes one last phone call…"
Mamet hasn't been terribly respectful of the craft of acting in the past. In his 1999 book "True and False," he wrote of actors, "The 'work' you do 'on the script' will make no difference. That work has already been done by a person with a different job title than yours. That person is the author."
Nonetheless, he seems to see something special in Pacino. Mamet rarely gives interviews, but, in a 2014 interview with John Lahr of The New Yorker, he did manage to compare Pacino to jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, saying, "He's incapable of doing it the same way twice." (There is no greater compliment a playwright can pay to an actor, of course, than to write a role with them in mind.)
Beyond his love of Mamet's words, Pacino seems to also enjoy the luxury of time that stage assignments like China Doll give him.
"At a certain point one just says, 'I need the time to do it,'" he told Entertainment Weekly. "In movies you don't get as much time anymore, you're confronted with the clock all the time, and that can be difficult because you have to make something work within the confines of your six-week shoot. And that's not enough time usually, so the work reflects that. You wish you had more time, even if it's just to get to know the players you're with or talk with the director about your character."