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A CurtainUp Review
Small Engine Repair
By Tyler Plosia
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.