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Rousuck's Review: "Crash and Burn, P.A." A Legal Farce For The Season

Photo by harry Bechkes

Now in its 35th year, the Baltimore Playwrights Festival has been going through structural and organizational changes. This summer’s season consists almost entirely of script-in-hand, staged readings, which continue into September.

The only full production is “Crash & Burn, P.A.,” written by festival veteran Robert R. Bowie, Jr., and produced by the Theatrical Mining Company. Bowie is a lawyer and like several of his previous plays, “Crash & Burn” is set in the legal world.

But unlike some of those earlier plays – which tackled subjects ranging from slavery to repressed memory – “Crash & Burn” is a farce, a farce that takes place in the office of a pair of bottom-feeding lawyers. Mark Crash is a low-level criminal attorney; his partner, Mike Burn, apparently prefers dead clients – he specializes in wills.

Mr. Crash’s latest client is a businessman with uncharacteristically deep pockets. In one of several exposition-laden passages, Penny Nichols, as Crash & Burns’ jaded secretary, begins describing this high-profile client to the new cleaning lady, Brenda.

But Jessica Taylor’s bright, perky Brenda knows more about this notorious tycoon than the secretary does.

Brenda turns out to have a strong stake in this case and in Crash & Burn. She also turns out to be smarter than anyone else in the play – one of several swipes the playwright takes at the legal profession.

Crash’s client, whose full name is “Milty Bill Yanair,” is charged with defrauding a bank. Two things about him don’t make sense to Brenda – or to the audience. Why does he insist that Crash tour the bank’s vault? And especially, why would a wealthy businessman hire sleazy Mark Crash?

The answers take up most of the play. Along the way, there’s plenty of farce-style confusion: A pair of identical coats and identical briefcases, slamming doors, a missing safe deposit box and a stolen Porsche.

These mishaps reduce both law partners to sniveling wimps – not a big change for Tom Piccin’s nervous, nerdy Mr. Burn, but a considerable decline for cocky Mr. Crash, played by Jonathan Ingbretson, for some reason, as a caricature of a Mafioso.

Slapstick and slamming doors aren’t all that playwright Bowie is going for here. Besides skewering the practice of law, he takes aim at political and financial targets – particularly rich businessmen buying politicians. Earnest and topical as all of this may be, at times it feels forced.

Farce may appear to be freewheeling, but it’s actually a delicate piece of theatrical machinery, very tricky to pull off. Director Barry Feinstein, whose forte tends to be plays of a more serious nature, hasn’t found the ideal balance between “Crash & Burn’s” thematic underpinnings and its comic high jinx – a fault I suspect lies primarily in the script.

“Crash & Burn” doesn’t quite end up in ashes, but as a farcical take on the current state of American legal, financial and political affairs, it just can’t compete with the real thing.

Theatrical Mining Company’s production of “Crash & Burn, P.A.” continues at Fells Point Corner Theatre through August 14.

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years. Her feature coverage for The Sun included a comprehensive series chronicling the development of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Hairspray.” Judy got her start at The Cleveland Press and at Cleveland’s fine arts radio station, WCLV. Her broadcasting experience also includes a year as an on-air theater critic for Maryland Public Television.