You know you’re in for a pretty testosterone-driven experience the minute you lay eyes on Patrick Jordan’s detail-perfect set for John Pollono’s superbly crafted and wickedly witty play Small Engine Repair. The grungy, cheaply paneled shop where Jordan’s character, Frank, fixes engines and motors of various sorts has pegboards hung with fan belts lining the walls, an ancient computer on a visibly dirty counter, a door smudged with greasy pawprints leading offstage to a bathroom, shelves crammed with tools, equipment, solvents, and rags, and a beat-up old fridge full of lite beer. It’s the kind of old-fashioned grease monkey spot that signals loud and clear that this is a guy’s space.
And the guys we encounter in this space are guy’s guys, to boot. Frank, a thirty-something single dad, is a solid type: he’s owned this business since 1998, when he left high school to raise the daughter conceived in a high school hookup. He’s sent duplicitous text messages to two of his lifelong buddies to get them to meet him after hours at his shop for what seems, at first, to be an intervention in a years-long feud between them. First to arrive is Packie (Gabe King), a small, unemployed Irishman who still lives with his grandmother; next comes Swaino (Brendan Griffin), a big strutter who fancies himself a real ladies’ man.
They start to drink – Frank’s marked the occasion with the purchase of a very expensive bottle of scotch – and banter, alternating between aggressive verbal pokes and crude sexual posturing. These guys are vulgar, and their attitudes toward women and gays are deeply offensive. Swaino, in particular, sees women purely in terms of their sexual use-value: he brags that he only goes to bed with young and inexperienced women because older women have already had too many bad sexual experiences. “So you want to be their first bad one?” retorts Frank – who, as the father of a teenaged daughter, is keenly sensitive to whiffs of sexual predation. “Yeah,” Swaino answers, after a beat. But though much of the humor is either misogynistic or homophobic, you’d have to be a real stick-in-the-mud not to find Pollono’s dialogue sizzlingly funny, mainly because the characters ring so authentically true as the kind of frustrated and rancorous types who would vote for Donald Trump.
Enter Chad (Casey Cott), a preppy college frat boy who seems doused in eau d’entitlement. In most ways, he couldn’t be more different from the three older men – not only is he on track to take his place among the one percent, but, unlike Frank, Packie, and Swaino, who were demeaned and abused by alcoholic fathers, he actually sees his dad, a prominent lawyer, as a protector and role model. But he, too, knows the guy-world code, and even though the combination of his class and youth precipitates some awkward moments, he quickly establishes connections through the universally safe guy-topics of sports and women.
It’s here the play takes a sudden dark and violent turn, one that is all the more surprising because the center of the conflict turns out to be an issue that strikes at the heart of the group’s socially-sanctioned guy-world misogyny. Dear readers, you know I do my best to avoid spoiling a good surprise, so forgive me if I skirt around the play’s thrilling plot twist by saying merely that its explosive contact point is located precisely where white male privilege intersects class entitlement. The play’s unsettling resolution brilliantly exposes the social and economic fissures that divide Cambridge from “Manch-Vegas,” painting a vivid portrait of that demographic of non-college-educated, underemployed working class white men who were recently found to have the highest rates of despair among US citizens.
Even at its darkest moments, Small Engine Repair is an ingeniously funny play, splendidly performed here, under Rich Keitel’s precise direction, by a dynamite cast. Patrick Jordan adds layers of complexity to Frank, a goodhearted, essentially sweet guy with massive (and, we come to see, justifiable) anger management issues. Gabe King brings a fierce, twitchy intelligence to Packie, a character who, in another life, might have been the kid who dazzled his peers in an undergraduate philosophy seminar. As Swaino, Brendan Griffin is a big bold rooster of a man, the kind of smartass cocky guy women regret getting drunk with. And Casey Cott subtly captures Chad’s combination of personal confidence and situational discomfort as he feels his way into Frank, Packie, and Swaino’s macho, working-class world.