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Small Engine Repair

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Keegan Allen, James Badge Dale, James Ransone and John Pollono
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Economy, with respect to both money and morality, is the driving force behind John Pollono's play Small Engine Repair, which just opened at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in an MCC Theater production directed by Jo Bonney. When you can't find anything worthwhile to live for, the show all but shouts, you have to settle for just getting by—and when you can't do that, even more drastic action is required.

It's not much of a lesson, true, and it's a shame that so much of Small Engine Repair depends on its being new information. Pollono is adept at capturing in both dialogue and silences mid-30s malaise; and by sticking to this comfortable (if uncomfortably rich) subject, he paints what would be a compelling portrait of a nation and a generation in crisis if only one-dimensional social concerns didn't get in the way. But there's a believable core to his work that compensates for many of the missteps.

Pollono himself stars as Frank, a thirtysomething mechanic whose life has never quite recovered from the detour it took when he fathered a daughter at 17. With the mother almost entirely out of the picture, Frank had to raise her himself and set aside dreams of college and most everything else. His shop, though successful enough, hasn't exactly propelled him to fame and fortune, even by the restricted standards of its location in Manchester, New Hampshire.

At least on some level, Frank has done better than his two best friends from childhood. Packie (James Ransone) is an Internet and social media guru who can't get a job and lives in his grandmother's basement. Swaino (James Badge Dale) has a job, but a meaningless low-paying one, and drifts from woman to woman as if forever trying to hang on to his fast-fleeing youth. The trio hasn't seen each other in ages, and Frank thought tonight was a perfect opportunity to get together one more time.

The why of that becomes clear in due course, as the usual discussions of work, family, and relationships gone awry gradually give way to the arrival of another visitor, Chad (Keegan Allen), a preppy drug dealer from Boston whose own history is the murkiest yet. Even so, the three just-barely-theres have more connections to the skyrocketing superstar-in-the-making than any of the four would likely be comfortable with.

The ensuing plot twists are good, if sometimes improbable, and Pollono has a keen ear for distinguishing the "working men" as being from a world far removed from Chad's. (The ongoing war between live-free-or-die New Hampshire and smug Massachusetts could easily be seen as a secondary theme.) And both Bonney's direction and Richard Hoover's set, which beautifully invokes the masculine disorder of Frank's business and life, immerse you in the greasy atmosphere in which all four are trapped.

It's the simplicity of it all, however, that fails to fully jell. Pollono lays on the moralizing thick, and does not shy from blaming the Internet for most of the woes he documents: It's behind the trouble Frank is having with his daughter, for example, and why Packie can't (or won't) commit to a real relationship. Rather than let these points emerge naturally, even subtly, Pollono hammers them in so hard that the play can seem less an adult offering than a twisted After-School Special.

As a result, the characters fall into types, and that doesn't encourage vivid performances. Pollono finds the most depth in Frank, showing in his performance the loss, regret, and acceptance that have become the building blocks of his life. Because there are only so many ways to play Antisocial Porn Addict, Low-Class Womanizer, and Rich Fraternity Jerk, the other actors don't have much to dig into, but their work is quite enjoyable within those limits.

Small Engine Repair ends with a bang (of the figurative, not literal, variety), and the feel-good affirmation that true friendship can survive pretty much anything; one certainly can't say there's no arc holding together its 70 breezy minutes of running time. But pat conclusions like that one are all Pollono ultimately gives you, and the more of them you receive, the less effective they become at powering the evening. For all Pollono's done right, it's the engine of the play itself that's in the greatest need of a once-over.

Small Engine Repair
Through December 15
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
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