One of the most critically acclaimed off-Broadway plays running right now is MCC Theater’s Small Engine Repair, a taught, four-man ensemble piece about some blue-collar boyhood buddies reuniting for a night of boozing and Real Talk in the titular Manchester, NH repair shop. At first, John Pollono's play seems like a brashly entertaining slice of New England life, as Frank and his old friends get bombed in a garage and poke at old wounds. But after steeping you thoroughly in the greasy milieu of "Manch Vegas," Pollono's narrative suddenly accelerates, and a disarming pathos emerges out from under the machismo. Pollono, who also stars in the play, recently talked with us about Small Engine Repair, which continues at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the West Village through December 21st.
How familiar were you with this town and this setting and these people? Oh, very familiar. I grew up basically in the town over, that's right next to Manchester, and that's sort of like a lot of the guys that I grew up with.
Have any of your friends from your childhood come to see the play? Yeah, I had some friends who came to see the play, for some it was probably the second play they'd ever seen, which was pretty interesting.
What was the reaction? Oh it was great. They were asking the questions, like "How do you memorize all those lines?" Typical stuff. But they definitely dug it and they got a kick out of all the references. They loved the play but they don't have a huge reference level in terms of other plays, but they definitely dug it. I mean, the play is not necessarily written for the typical theater crowd. This is sort of written for anybody.
Can you talk about where the idea for this play came from? The initial idea, coincidentally I did a play in the Fringe Festival in 2010 and I had a lot of buddies come visit me from New Hampshire and Boston and again, they had never seen a play, and that was the first play they'd seen. And they came out; a couple were having some rough times with girls or whatever and they just got really really drunk at a bar, and I was kind of taking care of them all night. Some were getting into fights and doing all this crazy stuff, and the next day I had this kind of epiphany, "What would my life be like had I never moved out?" That was sort of the impetus for it.
I had sisters growing up and a lot of my guy friends didn't, and it was always this sort of female angle that I grew up with, being around these tough guys but also having a different perspective on women, and that's sort of a common theme. So Frank is sort of a "what if?" scenario in the sense that I look back at my high school years and the girl I was love with when I was 17. She could have easily gotten pregnant—she didn't thank God—but had she, would that sort of thing not let me be able to go off and pay for my college and do all that shit? And all of the main characters are sort of amalgamations of people I know and archetypes of people I know.
Since you had sisters, I assume your friends would make some of the jokes that were in the play about women? Yeah, totally. I'm very much familiar with that. And it wasn't like I was always politically correct, but I definitely had more understanding of what it's like when the guys fuck over a girl and they are crying in their room for three days. I'd see my older sister crying, and it's just being more sensitive to that. That's just a sort of thematic quality to it, but I put myself through college with a landscaping company, I worked at a lawnmower shop for a little bit, and I just knew the guys that worked there and what they did and all that kind of stuff and that was just very much a world I was familiar with. And then I spent a lot of my life on a very circuitous route, working a lot of construction, landscaping, manual labor jobs, and just kind of, that was sort of what I was for a long time, and I just understand that world.
The set was really authentic; you have that sign advertising the shop, there's a photo of a little girl and she's holding a wrench, did you have to get a child model for that? Well, that's actually my daughter, so that was easy.
Are you going to let her use the Internet when she grows up? Yeah, sure I let her use my iPad and shit like that. But I actually had somebody, a friend of mine, an older buddy of mine who has had a bunch of kids, and he was like, "If you have to teach them the right thing to do when they're teenagers it's too late. You've got to start that early."
And for whatever reason my daughter is very, very morally just. If I swear, and I swear all the time, she's always on me if I don't do the right thing, so I feel really confident that she's going to make the right decisions. The scary thing about technology is that everyone makes mistakes, and now the stakes are so much higher. You're always nervous as a parent, but I do think this era is more nerve-wracking.
How familiar were you with stuff like Foursquare, which plays such a dramatic role in the play? I don't use Foursquare. I kind of remember the time I was writing people were talking about it and I kind of had to ask around, and a friend of mine was dating some girl, and he knew the girl's ex-boyfriend's name. And he would check that dude's profile, and that guy would Foursquare from the restaurant where she was working at. I was like "this is just crazy." And that was sort of the impetus of it.
I like the use of cell phones in the play. My irritation with people using their cell phone was so much more acute watching the play. Like for instance, when Keegan enters, and he's meeting people for the first time and he's just barely acknowledging them because what's going on with his phone is presumably so much more important. Yeah, I know what you're saying. And you don't want a play or movie or TV show where the people are always on their phones, but in this case we're making a sort of meta-commentary on it as well, and it does come into play so that we have that sort of sense of realism.
But it is a trap. I remember, it's funny, I had a writing teacher, and it's crazy how this stuff sticks in your head, but he was like "never have characters talking on the phone, if you can avoid it." And it makes sense, because, as actors, if you have two actors facing each other and communicating it's so much richer than someone yelling into a phone and someone else responding. But now you can't deny it, you can't get rid of it, you can't make a modern piece without a damn cell phone.
And the drinking was also impressive. Did you have to practice for that? Well, I mean it's all fake.
But is the beer fake too? Yeah, that's funny everybody thinks that, but no, we have a really skilled production design department, and they created this carbonated club soda and they put a sealant on it so it looks like a real beer can and sounds like a real beer can. But you know, we definitely had those nights, you know. I mean, that's the funny thing, the guys I grew up with—and every town has those—they just put down, they just drink. Like when they settle in they're just there.
And certainly for Frank it's a different night, and he keeps going harder and harder, but I wanted to. And it says it in the script that they almost never stop drinking until the shit hits the fan, and it's sort of that kind of mood where you hang out with some people and you hit the fan, and it's kind of dangerous too, not just for their health, but because they're going to start getting violent or less inhibited and stuff. So I wanted to have that element of tension, because the first half of the play is a lot of behavior and it's setting stuff up.
And you don't really know what it is and it's humorous; it's character development, but it's a tactical decision to create a non-plot for a while, to kind of have an audience let down their guard and ease into it and feel like they're in that shop as well, and almost maybe, not too much hopefully, but almost a little sense of, when's something going to happen? Because for me, then that prepares them for the next part. And the drinking and all that stuff is part of that, it's the part that you sort of, when you watch someone smoke and drink you kind of almost feel buzzed.
When you wrote the play, you were already thinking of yourself as the one who would play Frank? Yeah, you know, it originated in LA, and my wife produces a late night series at her theater company, and I had written a part that I knew I wanted to play. It was interesting because I was writing this catering to my strengths because I know this guy, but it was an incredibly challenging role as I started to do it, and of course that's what you do, you wear your writer's hat and your actor's hat, and you kind of swap it, but yeah I had always intended to play it.
I really enjoy that process, I get a lot out of it, and I've done it a lot of times at my theater or at different places. It's just something I do that I very much like. I love collaborating as a writer, I love working with talented people and saying, "Hey let's roll up our sleeves and make this work." When you're with the right people and work with people who have been a part of these collaborations it's a really wonderful experience. I think that if I was working with people I didn't click with it would be a nightmare having to swap back and forth.
But if you're an actor and you get a script that's written, say, by a playwright that's dead, if you're struggling with a line or a moment, you can't just rewrite it. Did you find yourself tempted to do that too much? At what point did you stop changing it and just lock it in? That's a really good question. There are two things. Certain things work on the page and you've got to work them. And as an actor I've been in many plays, and in the majority of plays you can't change things, and a lot of times you bump up against that and you work it and work it and work it, and eventually it leads to discovery and really brings you to a whole other level by you having to do the work, because your natural impulse is to take the path of least resistance.
So if there this thing that's a tongue twister, and you think "can I do this?" And if you can't, you make it work, you go home and say the line in the shower 50 times and you work it and you write it down and then you go to rehearsal the next day and it fluidly comes out and you're like, "Oh my God, this is amazing."
So it's kind of that fine line. That being said, from the story perspective, as you go on and especially work with someone great like Jo Bonney and MCC Theater, where they have this great support, where they start asking questions and you kind of look at it, and you're like, "Oh wow, well I could say this different or you could say this different." And during rehearsal I knew there were a couple little threads where the feedback was a lot of specific timeline stuff, where they wanted to hammer it home a little more, so you just add a little line here or there. And for me it's always: can you make it funnier or scarier?
There are so many plays that open and close very quickly; this one's been extended twice. Why do you think it's so successful and people are so into it? I think it's the type of play that's surprising and shocking and is truthful and has more on its mind and more than meets the eye, and I think the vast majority of people get that. And I think that there are themes that are being explored in a new way, in an unfiltered way, and people appreciate that.
I think that people appreciate truthfulness, and this play may not concern the most evolved, pretty people saying and doing things, but I think again they just appreciate not being condescended to and having to be challenged and provoked and exhilarated. And also, to me, what this play does is it really does what good theater should do is that it kind of pulls you in and you go through a range of emotions, and you don't just feel like you wish you were at home watching TV or a movie or anything else.
When I see live theater I laugh harder, I'm scared more, I cry harder then when I'm doing other things, because it's all there and we have a really intense range of emotions. And also the characters are all deeply flawed in the sense that they say and discuss things that we're all mostly familiar with but we rarely see on stage in that way, and it's not just done for shock value. I mean, if you open your heart and your mind to the characters, you can really see what's going on on a whole other level. And if you don't, fuck it, what are you going to do? You can't control who people are.
But I will say I'm really really glad that, with especially Keegan Allen, we've had a lot of teenagers come, and at first we were really worried. I mean yesterday I went out after the show and I talked to a mother and she had two girls there, one was 14, the other was 16, and I was like "I'm shocked." And she told me, "The first 15 minutes, I thought I'd made a terrible mistake, but by the end of the show I really got what you guys were doing. I get the point of it. And it was harsh and a lot of stuff was said and done that I didn't want to see or hear, but this is really good for them to see and I'm so glad that you articulated something that I couldn't as a parent."
So I thought that was really cool. You don't want to make something like an after school special, and obviously it's not anywhere near that, but that being said, it's a real great validation that people are enjoying it on multiple levels and also seeing the deeper message hidden in there.