If you grow up in New Hampshire, chances are your elementary school best friends will remain your besties for life, even in Manchester, its biggest city, whose population of 109,565 would make it hardly more than a small town here in Southern California.

Such is certainly the case for Frank, Swaino, and Packie, the three lead characters of John Pollono’s smash hit Small Engine Repair, recently transferred from Rogue Machine’s home base at Theatre/Theater to the swankier Beverly Hills Playhouse. Despite a rift between Swaino and Packie, the result of a fight about nothing in particular, and Frank’s responsibilities as the 30something single dad of a 17-year-old, duties which have kept him mostly apart from the feuding duo in recent years, theirs is a bond forged in childhood and unlikely to be broken by petty quarrels or adult responsibilities.

That’s why it makes total sense for Frank (Pollono) to issue an out-of-the blue invitation to his two childhood buddies for an evening of booze, pot, and shit-shooting at his small engine repair shop. True, he’s had to fib a bit to insure that the other two will show up for the reunion, informing swaggering womanizer Swaino (Donnie Smith) that there’ll be strippers and out-of-work technogeek Packie (Michael Redfield) that he’s been diagnosed with cancer.

It takes little to no time for Frank to bring about a reconciliation between playboy and leprechaun, as Swaino refers to the “magically delicious” imp who is still, several decades later, the inevitable butt of his mostly good-natured putdowns. As beer turns to Jameson Irish Whiskey turns to Johnny Walker Blue Label turns to pot, the three longtime best buds spend the next half hour or so sharing memories, catching up, and talking behind each other’s backs whenever one of them makes a short but conveniently timed exit—all this to considerable laughter, making Small Engine Repair a highly entertaining buddy comedy, or at least so it seems till about halfway through.

True, there are serious moments along the way, particularly when the subject of Frank’s ex, who years ago abandoned him and their now teenage daughter, comes up. Still, playwright Pollono appears for the first big chunk of Small Engine repair simply to have written himself and two other actors some terrific, edgily comedic roles to sink their teeth into.

The arrival of a fourth character, 19-year-old Northeastern University undergrad Chad (Josh Helman), changes all that. Though ostensibly Frank has invited the rich boy to supply the trio with some illegal Ecstasy, what the small engine repair store owner really has planned for the spoiled preppy is considerably more ominous in intent.

And that’s about all you’ll get from this reviewer, who could be brought up on charges for revealing what comes next.

Small Engine Repair is yet another hit from the always cutting-edge Rogue Machine, and one whose extension into the theatrically calmer month of August proves excellent news to playgoers who may have made the mistake of not catching it during its initial months. (The same can be said about Rogue Machine’s Blackbird, still packing them in at Theatre/Theatre.)

Despite a certain amount of contrivance in its setup, Small Engine Repair features characters so true to life that one ends up buying even its more farfetched moments, particularly since Pollono has gifted himself and his castmates with the kind of roles that virtually guarantee award consideration when brought to life by the caliber actors now onstage at the Playhouse, performing under Andrew Block’s powerful, incisive direction.

Pollono’s compelling, multi-layered Frank is the rock on which Redfield’s and Smith’s more colorful supporting turns depend, and quite a performance it is. Cast replacement Smith is so dynamic as the brash, crass, yet big-hearted Swaino that this reviewer feels fortunate to be the first to rave about his work in print. Redfield steals every scene he’s in as the trio’s inevitable odd man out, the social misfit whose delight at being the threesome’s sole avid social networker is a joy to behold as are his reactions to Swaino’s barbs and an ever increasing inebriation. Helman impresses in a role which showcases not only his TV star-ready good looks but some impressive acting chops as well. (Though Helman’s role is the briefest, it may well be the most draining, and he does it without a trace of his native Aussie accent.)

Production designer David Mauer scores high marks for Small Engine Repair’s terrifically grungy, terrifically lit set, which looks like it could have been been transported lock, stock, and power tools from blue collar New Hampshire. Tony Lepore’s excellent sound design and some just-right costumes complete the couldn’t-be-better design package. Small Engine Repair is produced by Jennifer Riley and John Perrin Flynn. Corryn Cummins is associate producer. Dean Kreyling is stage manager.

Small Engine Repair is yet another example of Los Angeles theater at its world-classiest. From its initial laughter-packed minutes to the edge-of-your-seat suspense which begins about midway through to the roller coaster of emotions its final moments inspire, John Pollono’s Small Engine Repair delivers one rich evening of theater in seventy-five memorable minutes.

Rogue Machine, The Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd, Beverly Hills.

–Steven Stanley
August 19, 2011

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