LA Times Review: The Dock Brief

A blowhard lawyer?   That’s the joke in ‘The Dock Brief’ in Venice
F. Kathleen Foley

What do you do when a lifetime of carefully harbored illusions are stripped away by irrefutable circumstance?

If you’re the clueless barrister in John Mortimer’s “The Dock Brief,” now at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, you simply rush to embrace another erroneous belief, in delusional defiance of reality.

That’s the poignant conceit that gives a bit of heft to Mortimer’s “Brief,” which revolves around a comically inverted attorney-client scenario in which the accused politely defers to his incompetent defender, despite the fact that his life is at stake.

The blowhard barrister in question is Morgenhall (Frank Collison), a lifelong loser who entertains the belief that he is poised for greatness. When Morgenhall scores a juicy “dock brief” to defend accused wife killer Fowle (Wesley Mann), he sees it as his long-awaited ticket to fame and fortune. Unfortunately, Fowle freely admits his guilt, a tack that Morgenhall hastens to redress in a series of role-playing exercises, all designed to show off Morgenhall’s much-vaunted but sadly overblown capabilities.
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When his big courtroom moment finally arrives, Morgenhall makes a complete botch of things. The fact that the play is set in 1958, when the British death penalty is still in force, makes his blunder a potentially deadly one — until, of course, an unexpected contrivance lightens the tone.

The two-person play holds interest primarily as a precursor of sorts to the long-running BBC series “Rumpole of the Bailey,” starring Leo McKern, Mortimer’s deathless comic creation.

“Brief” director Robert Bailey keeps the action keenly paced, while Norman Scott’s prison cell set is nicely detailed, down to the rust stains under the barred windows. The actors are well cast, with Collison as a lean, lugubrious counterpart to Mann’s hapless schlub. Mann is particularly effective, a kind of old school character actor with his droopy dog appearance and sly twinkle.
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“The Dock Brief,” Pacific Resident Theatre, 705 ½ Venice Blvd., Venice. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Closes Dec. 13 (no show on Thanksgiving). $25-$30. (310) 822-8392. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.

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