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A CurtainUp Review
Small Engine Repair
By Tyler Plosia
"Hey, are you guys laughing at me or with me? I can't tell.. ."—Packie
Jon Pollono
John Pollono and James Ransone (Photo: Joan Marcus)
It's uncommon for a play like Small Engine Repair, being performed in a relatively small space as the Lucille Lortel Theater, to be so filled with familiar faces. Swaino, the greasy-haired philanderer, is played with lascivious glory by James Badge Dale, known for his roles in The Pacific and Steve McQueen's Shame. Pretty Little Liars fans will recognize actor Keegan Allen as Chad, the frat boy drug dealer. And the timid, slightly desperate Packie is brought to life by James Ransone, who is best known for The Wire but has also appeared in a number of Spike Lee joints (he's got a role in Lee's upcoming Old Boy).

But the unquestionable star of the show is John Pollono, the playwright/actor who embodies Frank, the emotionally volatile owner of the auto shop where the work mentioned in the title is done. His acting is underplayed but powerful (in a cast not lacking in vigor). But his script, about a quietly furious father who fools his two oldest friends in the world into helping him enact a bit of dubious justice against his daughter's harmer is what propels the production.

As staged by Jo Bonney (her many credits include Neil LaBute's macho male plays, also at MCC), Small Engine Repair boasts an elaborate set design: the stage is bursting with small-town garage paraphernalia. Every inch is covered, either with weed-whackers or old sports gear, hand wrenches or power tools (both of the latter two will come into play, albeit in more grisly circumstances than you might anticipate).

There's an enormous freight door that leads outside, the kind you might spot in the backs of barren warehouses where eighteen-wheelers empty their contents late at night. It's a place we never get to see, but the promise and fear of it lurk alternately as the play goes on.

In a story where the only characters present in the flesh are four white men their treatment of women is surprisingly central to the narrative and thematic drives. There's Chad, the WASPy basketball-scholarship frat boy who's "playing the field," as Swaino puts it. Swaino himself is little more than an older, working-class version of the womanizer who never want to have sex with a "girl over 26" because most women have bad sexual experiences, and he wants to "get in there before all that happens." Then there's the meek, lonely Packie, who stays silent in most of the misogynistic exchanges, but at one point acknowledges that he loves women but that "they sort of terrify me is all."

Last but not least is Frank, the only character with a family of his own. It's just him and his daughter (now seventeen, though a portrait of her preteen face hangs high in the garage). Ostensibly, Frank is the savior character, acting out fatherly revenge fantasies on behalf of his baby girl.

Vengeance may seem like an acceptable response to what's happened to Frank's daughter — it is after all a revenge story. Ultimately, though, Frank's urge for lawless justice is not helping the young woman he thinks he's protecting. He's using the one lady in his life for his own self-serving purposes. The only difference between Frank and Swaino (or Chad, for that matter) is that he isn't openly objectifying his daughter, so that his minimization of her is less immediately offensive.

It's first and foremost a vulgar, occasionally violent comedy, but there are statements being made here. The trick is to look for meaning not in the lines of the fast-talking characters we laugh at, but to take a look at what it means when we find ourselves laughing with them in the end. Small Engine Repair is a cleverly-masked reminder that there's work to be done, and not just by the Chads and Swainos of the world. As directed by the always astute Jo Bonney, we can see the nuances beneath all the rawness. And though this is an all guys play, women are a powerful presence.

Small Engine Repair
By John Pollono
Directed by Jo Bonney
Cast: John Pollono (Frank), James Badge Dale (Swaino), James Ransone (Packie), Keegan Allen (Chad)
Production Manager: B.D. White
Production Stage Manager: David De Santis
Costume Designer: Theresa Squire
Lighting Designer: Lap Chi Chu
Sound Design: Jill BC Du Boff
Scenic Designer: Richard Hoover
Running Time: 70 minutes without intermission
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street, New York, NY
From 11/20/13 to 12/21/13
Tickets: $69-$99
Reviewed by Tyler Plosia based on performance November 16th, 2013
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