BACK STAGE WEST
February 12, 1998
THE DOCK BRIEF
at the Fremont Center Theatre
Reviewed by Rob Kendt
Like Dennis Potter or Larry Gelbart, John Mortimer is the best kind of TV writer, whose well-crafted and quick-witted short plays, though by no means confined to a 19-inch tube, seem to find their most natural expression when the prefix "tele-" is added. Decades before David E. Kelley, Mortimer was forging memorable and multi-faceted character studies from his own abortive legal career; one of his creations, the crusty Rumpole of the Bailey, became a trans-Atlantic favorite.
His early 1950s-era play The Dock Brief provides an engaging sketch of themes he'd work over later in more satisfying depth: the vicissitudes of England's wig-clad legal system, ill-equipped as it was to adapt to new social realities in a fading Empire; the old warrior worn out by the fight; the absurd but often comforting role-playing of a time-battered class system. In this case, his lead is the pathetic Morganhall, a super-annuated barrister well versed in legal precedent, the classics, and the daily crosswords who has nonetheless never tried a single case, and is in fact reduced to grubbing for the stray "dock brief," a hand-me-down public-defender case. He finally gets one in the form of Fowle, a bird-loving misanthrope who killed his wife because he couldn't stand her laughter.
In other hands, this might be rough going, but Mortimer dashes it off in two short acts that are almost reductively light. Morganhall ineptly prepares a defense of the blithely unrepentant Fowle by acting bits of a trial in the prisoner's cell, and Fowle gamely humors the educated but dim barrister. In director Norman Cohen's new production, this premise gets downright hammy: As Fowle, John O'Connell dives into the phony trial bits with an improvisatory glee that suggests Robin Williams, and otherwise steals the show from F. William Parker's aged barrister, who comes off as a particularly fussy poor loser.
Still, one takes what pleasure one can, and O'Connell's mugging is about all the show offers in that department. While Mortimer's play is certainly neither a weighty rumination nor a farcical romp, Cohen's production is flat and slight on both points. The pacing could be crisper, the class distinctions more artfully observed (though O'Connell's rattily lived-in costume is in the right direction), the interplay of the two actors less stiff and removed--really, the sort of problems a three-camera set-up might solve in a trice.
"The Dock Brief," presented by and at Fremont Center Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., S. Pasadena. Jan. 23-Mar. 1. (888) 441-5979.