John Pollono Writes a Small Engine that Could

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“What if you asked your best friends to help you do something terrible?”

John PollonoÂ

According to John Pollono, that question was the germ of his savage and short one-act Small Engine Repair, currently playing Monday nights and late night on weekends in Rogue Machine’s intimate black box theater. Featuring a tough-talking, macho cast of four males, the playwright himself appears as Frank, the seemingly most self-confident and stable guy in a bunch of longtime working-class friends.

Pollono recently sat down to discuss the genesis of his successful play, which has just been extended through June 5.

Set in Manchester, New Hampshire, Small Engine Repair is a pitch-black comic drama about three pals who gather in car mechanic Frank’s grimy workshop, ostensibly for some serious drinking, reminiscing, and musing about girls and the mysteries of social networking. But in fact Frank has a couple of motives that aren’t immediately apparent. After a young college kid shows up to do a little drug deal with Frank, suddenly the scene turns nasty, and Frank challenges his best friends to prove their undying friendship.

John Pollono is a founding member of Rogue Machine and serves as its marketing director. His first full-length produced play, Lost and Found, received a small production in 2006 at the Lounge Theatre in Los Angeles. Pollono later reworked the two-hour play, and last summer it enjoyed a sold-out, extended run at the FringeNYC 2010 (also directed by Andrew Block). Recalls Pollono, “That was an epic play, so it was challenging to make it fit into the Fringe, but we did.”

His second produced play was Razorback, which was staged in 2008 at Rogue Machine, directed by Elina de Santos. Explains Pollono, “It was part of their first season, called Rogue’s Gallery, where they did all these plays and then they chose one to produce, and they chose mine.” One of his one-act plays, Illuminati, won Best Play at the 2010 Network One-Act Festival in New York City. Pollono’s new play Rules of Seconds was chosen to participate in the 2011 Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Alaska.

The idea for Small Engine Repair percolated last summer, when he was in
New York for the production of Lost and Found. “I have some friends from where I grew up, the New Hampshire, Massachusetts area, and they came down to see the play. Because most of my work had been done on the West Coast, this was the first play of mine they had seen. So we all hung out after the show. Lost and Found is about a family from Massachusetts, and one of the characters is based upon a cop that used to bust our balls when we were growing up. We used to get in a lot of trouble when we were teenagers. So they were telling stories about this guy.

“My friends got so wasted, and it was funny — it was like the old world. I hadn’t hung out with them for so long. My role in the group, before leaving for LA and NY, was a Frank-like guy; the more responsible one. So that night, making sure these guys didn’t get beaten up in New York City, I remember thinking, ‘So this is what it would have been like if I hadn’t left.’”

Camaraderie and long-term friendships.

John Pollono, Jon Bernthal, Josh Helman (seated), and Michael Redfield

Pollono says he found it interesting to observe how readily people can sink into old patterns when they return home. The characters in Small Engine Repair are based on composites of the good buddies he grew up with. “These are guys I’ve known my whole life and [we’ve] been through so many different things.”

The gathering inspired Pollono to explore the ultimate test of a friendship. He maintains that in the theater we often see characters who represent the author’s intellect, acting as a mouthpiece for the playwright. Yet he finds that working class characters aren’t accurately represented in most plays, that “these northeastern, somewhat blue-collar guys, who are a bit aimless, who are not the most intellectually sophisticated” are seldom given a voice. He wants to see more of these “apolitical” guys occupying the stage.

He started with these familiar, blue-collar characters before he forged his plot. “I have a six-year-old daughter, and I was the first of my peer group to have a kid — we were pretty young. So, I was the first to make that transition to maturity and responsibility, when the rest of them were getting wasted and hooking up and stuff. Maybe I was doing that as well the year before, but then suddenly your priorities have to shift. So that material fed into this story.”

We see the character of Frank is rooted by the weight of this responsibility, setting him apart from the others. Pollono muses on the challenges of bringing up a child as a single parent. “In my family I’ve seen the pain and the sadness that goes along with that, as well as the triumphs, and I wanted to see that captured, in a realistic way.”

He recalls having been raised with three sisters, as the only boy in the family, but hanging out with guys who were “totally guys’ guys,” so he feels as if he straddled those two worlds. “But it’s always been an issue, and a recurring theme in a lot of my work, to have these feminist concepts coming out of the mouths of these guys who were not particularly evolved, because that was my experience.”

Having a daughter brought out his protective instincts. That, in turn, drove him to
explore a storyline in which Frank’s daughter has arrived at the age where she’s sexually active, “”¦and yet you know how all buddies talk about girls. It’s difficult terrain to negotiate.”

Pollono admits he is troubled by the phenomenon of contemporary social
networking. “Seeing my sister-in-law, who is 19, dealing with all these things, and all the pressures that go along with it — it really scares me. Social networking, especially among the younger kids, is really dangerous. And it’s a great thing to write about because there is no easy answer. I can’t say it’s all evil or it’s all good.

John Pollono in “Rant & Rave”

“I remember growing up when my sisters had something happen at school and they
would be devastated for about a week. Teenage girls are super-emotional. They’re just starting to understand their bodies, and they’re surrounded by guys who want sex, and that’s just how it is. Now they send out naked pictures and these things are never going to go away.” He adds, “There’s such a massive amount of information out there, but these kids don’t seem to care about their privacy. It’s all so complicated now.”

As Pollono highlights in his play, 19-year-old kids today barely remember a time when there wasn’t an internet.

Is Small Engine Repair a cautionary tale? The actor/playwright demurs, “Look, I didn’t set out to do that. I try to write plays I feel passionately about, and this is something that, being a dad, really affects me. Here’s the deal — I think a lot of times with theater if you write a cautionary tale, you’re usually inviting affluent, intellectual, elite theatergoers to view your play, and they’re probably not the people who need to hear that ‘message’. So I just tried to create something that was emotionally impactful.”

Pollono’s driving intention was to present a gut-wrenching theater experience
to audiences. “I wanted to show people how pulse-pounding live theater can be, the
experiential feeling of seeing this sort of story unfold. It’s always great when people
leave and they’re thinking and talking about something, as they hopefully are with
this, so that’s definitely a part of it. I think it makes the experience more visceral. I like strong themes, but this play has, to me, more of a universal theme of father and daughter relationships and the bond of love they share.”

He claims the social networking aspect of his script is simply part of the truthful and
honest reality of these characters. “I wanted to show a more gritty, realistic version of social networking.”

Short and tough

Michael Redfield, John Pollono, and Jon Bernthal

Pollono’s play runs at a taut 70 minutes. Around the midpoint, it takes off like a runaway freight train. Pollono agrees the work has its own driving energy. “I felt that as soon as there was a scene or an act break —  because originally it did have an intermission — then you’d be pulled out of the danger of the story and that [aspect] would get diluted. If I look at Lost and Found, which is two hours, it has maybe only 3,000 more words than Small Engine Repair. This is a really verbose play. It glides, but you don’t have any transitions or shifts or an intermission. In 70 minutes, text-wise, you’re getting a full-length play.”

Pollono explains it was conceived as a late-night play, so that permitted him plenty of
license with profanity and violence. But he says that when the company members saw it was turning into something that connected on a deeper level, it was re-allocated to sharing the main stage with a concurrent production of Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited.

In his play the profanity starts out casual, but when the mood changes, the dialogue
actually gets less profane — once the events become more serious. Pollono admits, “I love the use of profanity — it’s like poetry, sometimes. I grew up with the kinds of guys who use profanity as a disarming mechanism or a tic. It’s a class thing, it’s a social thing, it’s habit —  but it’s also a way of saying you’re comfortable with your present company.”

The playwright shoots a wicked grin as he adds, “I wanted to have the audience
pulled into this world. There’s a moment that happens in the play — and I don’t want to spoil it — that’s very graphic and the audience needs to be prepared for that. With all the [extreme] language, you start to understand their world. You need to teach the audience that they are in for surprises.”

**All production photography by John Flynn and head shot by Kris Korn

Small Engine Repair continues Fri.-Sat., 10:30 pm; Sun., 7 pm; Mon., 8 pm; through May 1; then Fri.-Mon., 8 pm (no performance June 3); through June 5. Tickets: $15-$25. Rogue Machine Theatre, 5041 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles; 323-960-4424 or roguemachinetheatre.com.

Pauline Adamek

Pauline Adamek