REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
When you walk into the plain storefront that serves as the home for The Flying H Group Theatre Company, you have to do a double-take to make sure you’re in the right place. A narrow foyer gives way to a larger back room, which resembles an auto mechanic’s workshop. Meticulously detailed right down to the hand tools, cans of motor oil, and ads for car batteries, the set perfectly resembles the average American do-it-yourselfer’s garage. This is the setting for Small Engine Repair, a brilliantly written tale of vengeance penned by playwright John Pollono, which had a successful Off-Broadway debut two years ago. Flying H’s sensational production puts you front-and-center in the garage as an alcohol-fueled reunion between three 30-something former high school chums turns dark…really dark.
Like Frank Romanowski, who restores car engines for his meager income, the plot transplants a familiar tale of vengeance into today’s cyberculture. Iphones, social media, apps, selfies, and location services play key roles in the commission of a crime, its victim’s vengeance, and the ultimate resolution to the story.
Frank, a divorced mechanic, has been raising his seventeen-year-old daughter on his own and is preparing to send her to college. He invites his old high school buddies Packie and Swaino to meet him at his garage, even though the two have had a recent falling out. To get them to come, he concocts a different scenario for each: feigning a cancer diagnosis to lure the sympathetic Packie, and the promise of hired strippers to attract the libido-intensive Swaino. When they arrive, neither is told the real purpose for their presence, but when Frank uncorks a $200 bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue scotch whiskey, they begin to suspect something urgent is in the works.
The first half of the play features rough-housing, sex talk, and raunchy reminiscing, until Frank reveals that he has also invited a 19-year-old drug connection, Chad, to the garage, under the pretense of purchasing ecstasy. Both Packie and Swaino comment about Frank’s repeated rounds from the Johnnie Walker bottle, since he had apparently recently been on the wagon. It was becoming apparent, at least to the audience, that Frank was preparing his friends for some sinister task. When Chad arrives, the atmosphere changes and Frank’s growing rage replaces the lewd camaraderie with his friends.
Frank’s life became pre-destined when he got his high school girlfriend pregnant and has been paying for it ever since, starting his repair business to pay for his daughter’s upkeep. Despite having no prospects for anything more ambitious than his colorless existence, Frank is still better off than his two friends. Packie lives in his grandmother’s basement and hasn’t had a job in years, while the sex-obsessed Swaino lives off the memory of female conquests, dispensing sage advice to never date anyone over 26 for fear of getting “trapped” into marriage.
Brian Robert Harris plays Frank like a powder keg with a sputtering fuse. Frank’s frequent outbursts are unsettling, especially with his turn-on-a-dime, lurching shifts in emotion. It’s an electrifying performance, yet when we learn of the reason he has called his friends over, we still side with him, not only because we understand his rage, but because of Harris’s sensitive, sympathetic acting. Michael Wayne Beck is a whirlwind of jittery insecurity as Packie while Eric Mello exudes strutting machismo as Swaino. When Chad enters the scene, Swaino queries him with his own two-question litmus test of manhood: “What are you driving?” and “How much do you bench press?” Joshua Kahn presents youthful arrogance as the cocky rich kid with neither a sense of honor nor decency. Kahn’s performance is key to our sympathy for Frank and his portrayal of Chad is both understated and subtle in helping us identify with Frank’s dastardly plans for him.
Set designer Taylor Kasch, who is also the theatre’s artistic director, has put together one of the most remarkably detailed sets we’ve seen in some years. It’s as if the play were being staged in an actual garage, instead of a facsimile. The random nature of the placement of the contents of the garage reflect Frank’s haphazard existence and years of disorganization, yet we are sure that Frank functions well amidst the chaos. Even the sticking front door, which only Frank can open, is an ingenious touch that actually plays an integral role during the play’s horrific climax.
The language used in the play is profane, graphic, and frequent, but it serves a purpose, to not only unite the three friends during the raunchy prologue to Frank’s ultimate raison d’être, but to put an exclamation point on the real and violent emotions that go through all four of the play’s characters.
Director Kathleen Bosworth has done a remarkable job in bringing this taut, emotionally-charged story to the intimate Flying H Group theatre. For anyone interested in the edgy side of theater, Small Engine Repair is one show that belongs high on your lube rack.
Small Engine Repair plays through October 31 at the Flying H Group Theatre Company. For dates, showtimes, and directions to the theatre, please consult the VC On Stage Calendar.