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Small Engine Repair Review: A Shocking(ly Inept) Play Off-Broadway

Small Engine Repair MCC - Lortel TheatreSmall Engine Repair feels like an hour-long acting lesson, full of fast, tough and jocular exchanges. The problem is that John Pollano’s play is 70 minutes long – and the last ten minutes turn it into an empty acting exercise: fake, preposterous, offensive.

Pollono himself plays Frank Romanowski, proprietor of Frank’s Small Engine Repair, established 1998, in Manchester, New Hampshire.  A man in his thirties, Frank has invited two old childhood buddies to his shop, under false pretenses.  He told Packie (James Ransone) he has cancer, but after lifting the garage door to let Packie into his cluttered back office, admits that isn’t true.

Packie: Nobody has cancer? That is fucking infuriating. You texted me you have cancer and I dropped everything to meet you during this crisis.
Frank: You’re mad at me for not having cancer?
Packie: Well, no…
Frank: And what exactly did you drop? The fucking remote control?

This exchange is typical of the testosterone-fueled dialogue,  funny and in-your-face, reminiscent of Neil LaBute or David Mamet, and offering some thespians the chance to strut, thrust and parry as if blue-collar characters in a TV series (though it would have to be cable because of all the four-letter words.)

To get his other friend,  Swaino (James Badge Dale), to show up, Frank told him there would be strippers.

But there aren’t strippers either. There’s not much at all, but drinking and conversation —  about girls; about getting older; about Frank’s 17-year-old daughter Crystal, whose face graces the garage sign; about Facebook and Foursquare

“How many friends do you have on Facebook,” Packie asks Swaino, a put-down rather than an inquiry.

“How much can you benchpress?” Swaino retorts.

“Less talking, more drinking,” Frank says.

Eventually there is a fourth character, Chad Walker, a 19-year-old college student athlete and fraternity brother who Frank invited to sell them some Ecstasy. Chad is portrayed by Keegan Allen, best-known as Toby on the TV series Pretty Little Liars, who makes a credible New York stage debut as the insufferable teenager.

Suddenly, what seemed like a play of idle chat and male camaraderie switches gears, and turns into a high octane physical confrontation. Frank has invited his friends to help him wreak revenge on Chad.

Why he wants revenge, how he plans to take it, and what happens to his plans are all meant to be shockers, and I won’t spoil them here. The most shocking thing about Small Engine Repair, however, is that this play has won awards (it was first produced in Los Angeles in 2011) and garnered positive reviews despite so implausible a plot and such awkward dramatic construction. Even way before its twisty, ridiculous climax that reeks of homophobia (in a theater on Christopher Street!), this is a play desperately in need of dramaturgical assistance. Characters leave the stage under the flimsiest of excuses – usually to pee – in order to allow for a mix of two-character scenes; Packie and Swaino are supposed to have an intense feud, but it completely disappears after a couple of lines.

What Small Engine Repair has going for it is a wonderfully detailed set by Richard Hoover,  efficient direction by Jo Bonney, and some good  actors, including James Ransone, whom I loved as the dangerously reckless goofball Ziggy Sobotka in The Wire. (There is even an inside joke about The Wire, which, since that series ended five years ago, doesn’t make much sense.)  Pollono, primarily an actor, gives himself and his colleagues moments of verbal choreography meant to dazzle.

Small Engine Repair has been extended twice, now to December 21. After that, maybe it could be broken up into its best scenes so that actors could use them for auditions.

Click on any photograph to enlarge it

Small Engine Repair

At the Lucille Lortel Theater

By John Pollono

Directed by Jo Bonney; sets by Richard Hoover; costumes by Theresa Squire; lighting by Lap Chi Chu; sound by Jill B C Du Boff; fight direction by UnkleDave’s Fight-House

Cast: Keegan Allen (Chad), James Badge Dale (Swaino), John Pollono (Frank) and James Ransone (Packie).

Running time: one hour, 10 minutes, no intermission.

Small Engine Repair is scheduled to run through December 21.

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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