Al Pacino, David Mamet, and Pam MacKinnon
Al Pacino, David Mamet, and Pam MacKinnon

MacKinnon Meets Mamet Meets Pacino

The superstar team brings China Doll to Broadway beginning October 21.

Among the most important assets that a director must possess – in addition to taste, style and knowledge – is confidence.
Pam MacKinnon knows that she is a confident leader. She has the self-assurance that the decisions she makes are the right ones. When others voice their opinions – to which she must listen – she’s required to have the sureness to say the person’s wrong when he’s wrong – and right when he’s right.

All this isn’t easy. But now MacKinnon is the director of China Doll – a play by David Mamet that stars Al Pacino. How does she naviagte these waters when she’s working with – and for – two such legendary warhorses? How can she make sure to give star and author what they want and what she wants, too – and have it ready for a first-preview audience on October 21 and a bevy of critics on November 19?

MacKinnon does have a Tony Award – as Best Director of a Play in 2013 for her Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And speaking of confidence, certainly lead producer Jeffrey Richards has plenty in MacKinnon. This is the third time in less than a year that he’s hired her to stage one of his productions; last season alone, MacKinnon directed A Delicate Balance and The Heidi Chronicles.

Her Tony puts her one up on Mamet who, despite having had 11 of his works on Broadway, has never — astonishingly enough — won Broadway’s highest award. In fact, he’s only been nominated twice, and the last time was more than a quarter-century ago, in 1988 for Speed-the-Plow. His Tony-nominated 1984 drama Glengarry Glen Ross lost too.

At least the 1984 Pulitzer Prize committee knew worth when they saw it, for they gave Mamet and Glengarry the prize. But even if the Pulitzer judges hadn’t, is there any doubt that Mamet is one of the all-time great playwrights due to his writing dialogue that is completely stripped of artificiality? Instead, Mamet’s trademark is stop-and-start interruptions that are far more representative of the way people really speak. And let’s not forget that Mamet has contributed to more than two dozen movies while MacKinnon has worked on – well, none.

Meanwhile, Pacino is a veteran of 11 Broadway shows. We all know he could have done many more since his 1969 debut in that welcomed him with his first Tony Award (in a barely remembered play called Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?). The second came in 1977 for The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, by which time he was a major star thanks to the 1972 epic The Godfather – en route to appearing in more than four dozen films and TV movies, which resulted in two Emmys and one Oscar.

So that’s a lot for Pam MacKinnon to digest before the first day of rehearsal.

The 47-year-old director does say “I was old enough to know what The Godfather was when I was a kid, even if I wasn’t seeing R-rated movies then. And it wasn’t until I started coming to New York from Buffalo in the ’80s that I really became aware of Dave,” she says. “By then, he was already part of American storytelling.”

Note the chummy use of “Dave.” If MacKinnon was ever intimidated by meeting the legend, she sure isn’t now.

“He wasn’t the first great playwright I met,” she says. “Edward Albee was about 10 years ago when I was chosen to direct his Peter and Jerry at Second Stage. So I got used to talking to great playwrights early on.”

MacKinnon also says that having the chance to read the play before meeting Mamet was a great help too. “So,” she says, “it wasn’t one of those possibly irrelevant meetings between an arbitrary director and an arbitrary playwright. We now had a great deal to talk about, so it all went easy and conversational. The other thing is that I’d met with him in L.A. when I was hopping from meeting to meeting over four days and chatting with a lot of brand-new people. I was in the zone, so to speak.”

Pacino plays Mickey Ross, a still-vibrant, very successful, and well-connected businessman. “Because he’s suddenly fallen in love,” explains MacKinnon, “he wants to abandon everything else in his life. Mickey’s aware that now that he’s in his seventies, he might have about 10 years left and he wants to make the most of them.”

That the woman who has beguiled him is substantially younger is not surprising. What is unexpected, however, is that audiences won’t even get as much as a glance of her.

“It’s a two-character play,” explains MacKinnon. “The other person we meet is Carson, Mickey’s assistant. He has a few opinions of his own on what his boss is doing. Their relationship really grows over the course of the two acts.”

MacKinnon stresses, though, that China Doll deals with much more than just a late-life crisis. “A series of incidents really adds up to something,” she says. “You won’t know where it’s going because even the characters don’t know where it’s going. Think of it as a political thriller.”

Given that MacKinnon was a political science major in college, she would seem right for a political thriller. This was, of course, before she saw the theatrical light and switched career paths.

Despite all the testosterone surging through China Doll – “There isn’t much talk about feminist issues,” MacKinnon concedes – she stresses that unlike so many Mamet plays, “It is not X-rated.”

The role of Carson will be played by Christopher Denham, who now,  in his third Broadway outing, will finally get the chance to originate a role.

“I’ve known Chris a long time, ever since Dan Sullivan introduced us when Chris was his student at the University of Illinois,” she says, citing the Tony-winning director of Proof. “Chris wrote a play about 10 years ago that we workshopped. After that, we lost track of each other, and I was delighted when he came in to audition — and turned out to be the best one for the role.”

Have you noticed that MacKinnon has a propensity to be associated with Pulitzer Prize-winning plays? Of her four previous Broadway outings, only Virginia Woolf? failed to win the coveted prize – and it would have, for it was chosen by the 1962 selection committee but was voted down by higher-ups who were offended by its frank language. (This was, of course, years before Mamet’s Broadway debut with American Buffalo became a game-changer.)

At the very least, MacKinnon’s track record with Pulitzers should give China Doll a nice boost of confidence.

Photo: Al Pacino, David Mamet, Pam MacKinnon, and Christopher Denham.