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.