Theater review: Rogue Machine’s ‘Small Engine Repair’ at Theatre Theater

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The multi-talented John Pollono wrote Rogue Machine’s “Small Engine Repair” and stars in it as Frank, the eponymous owner of a modest, very oily shop in Manchester, N.H.

One night as Frank is closing up, two high school friends arrive. It turns out he’s tricked them into coming. Packie (Michael Redfield) believes Frank has cancer, whereas Swaino (Jon Bernthal) thinks there will be strippers.


These two lies, perfectly baited fishhooks, show how well Frank understands loyal, gullible Packie and lady-killer Swaino, even though, in their mid-30s, the three have drifted apart.

Packie and Swaino aren’t even on speaking terms, but Frank, distributing intoxicants at a relentless pace, good-humoredly mediates a reconciliation. As the booze goes down and the weed goes up in smoke, crazy anecdotes are recounted (with a level of detail that, while perhaps not faithful to the coded banter of many close friends, is far friendlier to the audience). Old wounds are reopened. Apparently Frank has wrestled with a drinking problem and jealous rages since his high school girlfriend abandoned him and their daughter, Crystal.

Meanwhile his friends (and we) are wondering why he has gathered them here today. Is it really, as he claims, because he just felt like hanging out? Why is he so secretive about Crystal, now in high school herself? What is his relationship with Chad Walker (Josh Helman), the gallingly preppy Northeastern University freshman who ventures into the working-class world of “Manch-Vegas” (as locals mockingly call Manchester) to sell him Ecstasy? It would be unkind to answer any of these questions here, because Pollono spins his apparently meandering setup into a psychological thriller worthy of Hitchcock — replacing the old mechanisms of intrigue (window-peeping, letter-intercepting) with new versions (Facebook, text messages, Foursquare, camera phones) that make his story chillingly topical.

In a sequence of horrific, grotesque and comic twists, persuasively directed by Andrew Block, every passing remark becomes significant. The actors take their characters so far beyond type that they can even, refreshingly for dramatis personae, laugh at themselves. What first seems like a theatrical version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” or Nickelback’s “Photograph” (middle-aged men acknowledging the pathos of their own nostalgia) turns into a stunning investigation of classism, sexism, the lonely joys and terrors of bringing up a child, and the limits and possibilities of friendship.

-- Margaret Gray

“Small Engine Repair,” Rogue Machine at Theatre Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Mondays. Ends April 30. $20. (855) 585-5185 or Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.