Trash Talkers' Tale

John Pollono’s résumé indicates he has had some notable acting appearances, but his new play, Small Engine Repair, provides evidence that he also has a fine sense of dramaturgy. Director Jo Bonney’s swift 90-minute production gives four actors an opportunity to showcase some ethnic characters with swagger and distinctive accents. Needing only one set, Small Engine Repair should not only provide a healthy income for Pollono as he pursues a career either in acting or writing, or both, but also give audiences a good time.

Set in the titled enterprise, in Manchester, N.H., the play quickly establishes an atmosphere of foul-mouthed comic insult hurled by macho dolts, and then lingers there awhile. Frank (Pollono), the owner, has invited his childhood friends of 30 years, Packie (James Ransone) and Swaino (James Badge Dale), to stop by. But neither Packie nor Swaino, whose last interaction resulted in a violent falling-out over cough drops, knows the other is coming. When Swaino arrives, Frank attempts to play mediator as they begin drinking some expensive scotch that Frank has bought, ostensibly to help effect a reconciliation.

Loaded with scabrous, Mamet-like dialogue, the play recalls American Buffalo, also about three small-time working-class strugglers, in its vulgar brio. The junk shop in Mamet’s play has its counterpart in Frank's cluttered workspace, designed superbly by Richard Hoover with oil cans, jacks, wrenches, screwdrivers and a sliding entry door.

For a while, Pollono's Frank plays the centered straight man to his goofier colleagues, bringing a solidity and a dark undercurrent to the character. And gradually it becomes apparent that the men's bawdy discussion of women, pornography and prostitutes is linked to the playwright's theme. Pollono has something to say about men’s callous treatment of women and the way social media have exacerbated a viral atmosphere of disdain toward them. Typical of the men's mindset is the preening Swaino’s answer to whether he has been in touch with an ex-girlfriend: “I kind of lost contact with her after I stopped calling.”

Swaino sees himself as a ladies’ man, but no sane woman would want him for a long-term relationship. Dale plays him all-out, with slicked-back, curly, graying hair, a tracksuit with the top open halfway down his chest, and Buddhist mala beads on his wrists (Theresa Squire did the costumes) — he’s a borderline caricature of someone who sees himself as God’s gift to women.

Ransone is equally fine as the quick-tempered, put-upon Packie, who laments his lack of money and attributes it to being Irish: “My people were oppressed by white men,” he declares in all sincerity. And his heritage brings some serious teasing by Swaino, who calls him a “leprechaun” and says: “You got no reason to be angry at me, Packie. I don’t got no pot of gold.” Packie, whose slighter build is derided but who has an enviable sexual organ, is also tech-savvy — and it's one of his saving graces.

Gradually, though, one senses that something more is going on underneath the colorful give-and-take and Frank's watchful eye. We learn that Frank has raised his daughter, Crystal, by himself; that now her mother, Karen Delgado, is back in town; and that Swaino has had a meeting with her, unbeknownst to Frank. Though the last is in some measure a red herring, the secrets and offstage characters help the plot thicken. As Swaino and Packie drink, they discover that Frank is also awaiting a drug dealer named Chad, a 19-year-old from Boston.
 
The action kicks into gear with the arrival of Chad (Keegan Allen), and it would be unfair to reveal too much about it. But all the actors dive into the characters with zeal. Packie admires the pampered preppie’s accomplishments as a basketball player at Northeastern: “He plays in Massachusetts,” says Packie. “It’s a whole different thing down there. They play against black people.” Allen's laid-back Chad seems to have not a care in the world and enjoys their admiration of his youth and good looks.

A late twist (you may guess it before it arrives) propels the play into violence, and the resolution, lewd and comical, involves Packie and some crucial lighting by Lap Chi Chu. One of the pleasures of Small Engine Repair is that its heroes may be losers and jerks, but the world is full of much worse.

Small Engine Repair will play through Dec. 15. Evening performances are: Tuesday through Thursday at 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinees are Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. There is an additional performance on Monday, Nov. 25, at 7 p.m. General tickets are $69-$89 and may be purchased by calling 212-352-3101 or visiting www.mcctheater.org.

Print Friendly and PDF