Wait — what’s that thing doing on his ear?

If we all hadn’t been warned in advance, we might not think anything of Al Pacino’s having one of those Bluetooth-y chips attached to his right lobe.

But word spread during CHINA DOLL’S previews – and postponement – that Pacino was having trouble learning and remembering his lines. Is that little triangular item a prop or a genuine dialogue-feeding earpiece?

Oh, to see an early script of David Mamet’s newest play! Did he establish that Mickey Ross, on his many, many phone calls, would strictly use a conventional land-line or cell phone? Did Mamet, director Pam McKinnon or another staff member wince so often during rehearsals when Pacino couldn’t recall his next line that one of them suddenly exclaimed “I’ve got it! We’ll put a Bluetooth on his ear and have someone offstage give him the lines! That’ll solve everything!”

Omitting a genuine phone does allow Pacino full use of his hands, which he uses splendidly to punctuate his sentences and anger. Whatever confusion may or may not be going on in his head, Pacino’s left and right mitts still marvelously underline what he has to say.

The real question is, however, what was Pacino’s reaction when he first put his hands and eyes on the script for CHINA DOLL (another Mamet title that’s as obfuscating and ill-fitting as OLEANNA or GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS)? Pacino is, after all, no kid; he was born before Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided to run for a third term. Many an actor who’s closer to his 76th birthday than his 75th would have taken one look at the inordinate number of lines, shaken his head and told the playwright, “Davey, I’m too old for this grizzly bear of a role. Get someone else; get someone younger.”

Instead, Pacino said “Let’s do it!” and deserves immense credit and respect for the decision. Norma Desmond said “Great stars have great pride,” which could apply to Pacino’s staying with one of the toughest roles of his career. At a time when his peers have long since retired (voluntarily or not) or are taking it easy by taking much smaller roles or even cameos, he’s returned to no-retakes Broadway. No wonder his voice is more gravel-tinged than usual; he’s using it virtually non-stop for two hour-long acts.

That said, the entertainment value of CHINA DOLL isn’t high. We do have the asset of a Big Character to follow, for Mickey is a mover, shaker and up-ender. Most of his interminable phone calls deal with his two new toys: the airplane he’s about to buy and the young woman he’s already bought. So during a long walpurgisnacht, Mickey yells, barks, rolls his eyes and becomes increasingly exasperated when he can’t get what he wants.

But how much fun is this? John Guare’s SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION noted that rich people live “hand to mouth but on a higher plateau,” and we see that here. Mickey’s calls aren’t unlike the ones that we po’ folk make all too often to credit card companies and department stores where we waste many, many minutes in order to straighten out an error that someone else made. Does any theatergoer need to pay dozens of dollars to watch someone else endure the same kind of bureaucratic hell even if he’s more rich, famous and powerful?

What’s amazing, however, is that for all of Mickey’s forest-fire level of frustration, CHINA DOLL is one of the least profane David Mamet plays. Oh, the four-letter words are there, but they’re hardly as plentiful. Is even Mamet wearying of the barrage of vulgarity that has famously peppered his plays?

Mamet hasn’t abandoned his ability to create a full-bodied main character. As we might expect, Mickey is The Boss from All Nine Circles of Hell who mistreats his employee Carson. And yet, after Mickey tongue-lashes the young man, he does see that he’s been much too demanding and apologizes. We might assume that Mamet is having Mickey act contrite so that only seconds later he can make the mogul revert to the horror that he is and show us the apology didn’t mean anything. No – Mamet wants us to see that Mickey does have a human side. The man may not care to display it all that often, but it’s there.

We never see Mickey’s “fiancée” Francine, but we believe her to be young and gorgeous. He knows full well that he lacks “youth, looks (and) charm” and that wealth has made her take up with him. But Mickey doesn’t have unconditional love for Francine, either. When he tells her she won’t be traveling on a private plane but will have to fly “commercial,” she apparently balks enough for him to remind her of her roots. (Apparently there was a time when Francine couldn’t afford to travel by greyhound – meaning even on the back of a dog, let alone a bus.)

Virtually all of this phone-call torture happens while Carson stands around wondering what impossible task he’ll be given next. Christopher Denham looks as if he’d have been One of the President’s Men had he been of age during the Watergate era. How constipated he looks in a grey flannel suit whose top button is tightly buttoned. It makes him look even more uptight than the character actually is.

Whenever Carson does get the chance to speak, Denham responds with the speed of summer lightning. He and McKinnon want to establish that this is a bright young man who wants to impress his boss at every opportunity.

At first, Denham would seem to have little to do, but the second act proves otherwise. Now it’s the morning after; Mickey’s verbal tsunami is over, and the calm after the storm allows for some political discussion that seems irrelevant for a while, but pays off big time.

There was a good deal of chatter during previews that many theatergoers walked out of CHINA DOLL at intermission. That’s unfortunate on two levels. For one, they missed a shattering climax and an enigmatic and purposely inconclusive ending that would have allowed them to make up their own minds as to what happened next. But more to the point, they walked out on a great artist who is still game for a great challenge. They should have stayed around to applaud him mightily.

You may e-mail Peter at pfilichia@aol.com. Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and each Friday at both www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.