BY JESSE McKINLEY | PUBLISHED: NOVEMBER 14, 2013
John Pollono said he was knee deep writing a play about 19th-century Boston, the art of dueling and the myriad rules that govern such gunplay, when it suddenly occurred to him to lighten up.
“I was like, ‘I just want to write something from the world I know,’ ” Mr. Pollono, 38, said. “And the people I know.”
Those people turned out to be the trio of characters at the heart of “Small Engine Repair,” a dark comedy about a group of former high school friends whose haven’t aged well and whose current plans involve the possibility of strippers, some serious Internet shenanigans and perhaps a little vengeance. A New Hampshire native, Mr. Pollono set the play in that small state’s biggest city, Manchester, a mill town that has reinvented itself as a popular Boston commuter hub.
As Mr. Pollono suggested, he knew all too well about people who felt as if their world ended at the Massachusetts border.
“I did not grow up around any creative people,” said Mr. Pollono, the child of an engineer (dad) and a retired travel agent (mom). “I was hankering to be a writer and an actor, but it took a long time to give myself permission to do anything artistic.”
He found his artistic home in Los Angeles, a place not exactly known for its passion for theater. But the city has been very good to him, helping propel “Small Engine Repair” — and the company that staged its premiere — to their first full-scale New York production. MCC Theater is bringing the show to the Lucille Lortel Theater, opening on Wednesday.
And as he did during that 2011 production in Los Angeles, Mr. Pollono plays the lead in “Small Engine Repair,” making his Off Broadway debut as an actor and playwright.
“Small Engine Repair” comes to New York from Rogue Machine Theater in Los Angeles, the acclaimed five-year-old troupe that operates out of a pair of tiny theaters on a gritty but gentrifying stretch of West Pico Boulevard. Productions aren’t fancy — the lights have been known to go out, and late-night audiences can be slightly less than sober — but the company has nonetheless earned high praise from critics like Charles McNulty of The Los Angeles Times, who called it “one of the most vital small theaters in L.A.”
Steven Leigh Morris, a critic at large for LA Weekly, echoed that. “They are a defiant group,” he said. “They’ve created their own cultural ecosystem and defied the culture of indifference by showing that this isn’t just a movie town.”
Not that any theater company in Los Angeles is ever that far removed from the film industry. Rogue Machine is led by John Perrin Flynn, its artistic director and a veteran television movie producer who first worked with Mr. Pollono in 2006 after answering an online advertisement for a director.
His hopes were not high.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, it will be terrible,’ ” Mr. Flynn, 66, said, recalling his fear of reading the script. But he was pleasantly surprised, and “called the writer immediately, and that writer was John.”
The play was “Lost and Found,” Mr. Pollono’s first full-length script, a collaboration that eventually led to the founding of Rogue Machine. Mr. Flynn, a father of two, had worked in theater as a younger man, but abandoned it for a time because “you can’t have children and things like that and expect to pay for them, especially in this town” doing theater.
With Rogue Machine, the idea was not to make money — the company has an annual budget of about $300,000, and still barely scrapes by, Mr. Flynn said — but rather to promote new plays, or at least, plays that were new to Los Angeles.
Rogue Machine programmed the Los Angeles premiere of New York shows like Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Compleat Female Stage Beauty,” the company’s first production, in 2008. It also quickly moved into world premieres, including Mr. Pollono’s “Razorback,” about a retired gangster living in rural Maine. (His latest, “Lost Girls,” is currently running at the theater.)
Mr. Pollono said that he wrote “Small Engine Repair” in a flash — the first draft of about 60 pages came out in a week, he said — and partly out of a selfish desire to act, something he describes as an equal passion to writing.
“I hadn’t been in a play in a little bit,” said Mr. Pollono, who somewhat resembles a more road-weary Paul Rudd and speaks with a quick and happily profane streak. “And I knew I had constructed a character that played to my strengths as an actor.”
That character was Frank Romanowski, a “solid guy in his mid/late 30s,” according to the script, who has decided to get two old buddies together for an impromptu party in his repair shop. (There are ulterior motives to the get-together, naturally.) Mr. Pollono, who once worked at a landscaping business, said he essentially wrote the play as a “what-if scenario,” as in “what if I had never pursued the other stuff.”
Jon Bernthal (Shane on “The Walking Dead”) performed as the character of Swaino, a smooth-talking buddy to Frank, in an early reading of the play. He, too, didn’t really have high expectations for the play or the company.
“I was a total New York theater snob,” said Mr. Bernthal, who ended up playing Swaino during the show’s Los Angeles run. “I had an idea of L.A. theater of just a bunch of people looking for agents. But I found this vibrant, intelligent, committed group of theater artists.”
The play’s plot involves a nude photograph or two and the power of the Internet to spread such images, often to deleterious effect. That resonated with Jo Bonney, who directed the new production and said that her children were around the same age as characters in the play and those mentioned in a critical part of the plot. “So I’m hyper-aware of the positives and the negatives of that world,” Ms. Bonney said.
Theater came late to Mr. Pollono and only after he decided to do “a deeper dive into being an actor” a little more than a decade ago. That corresponded with his move to Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, Jennifer, who is a member of Rogue Machine and is currently appearing in “Lost Girls,” and their 8-year-old daughter.
The New York production of “Small Engine Repair” is more elaborate than its first incarnation, which began as a late-night show on another play’s set performed with a cast of friends. While he’s the only original cast member in the New York production, Mr. Pollono said the play has not changed much from that early version. But the acting out of his “what if” continues to evolve, even as his opening night approaches.
“You try five things and two fail miserably,” he said. “But I’m finding things every day.”