Melodramas shoving lowlife crumbbums into a pressure cooker — with David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” standing as the granddaddy of them all — don’t come any funnier or more intense than John Pollono’s “Small Engine Repair,” an atmospheric exploration of friendship and retribution in the wilds of Manchester, N.H. A powerhouse cast led by the scribe himself and Jon Bernthal of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” makes for a most gripping and fast-moving 85 minutes.
It would be a crime to reveal the crime which brings together this woeful quartet in a tiny machine shop (beautifully rendered by David Mauer). But as secrets are revealed and dealt with, the play remains primarily interested in the bonds which unite people across the decades and through DSL lines. Just how responsible are we to each other here and now, and what is the responsibility of the past to the present?
This isn’t to say the play gets didactic; on the contrary, much of its pleasure derives from the way Pollono’s larger themes emerge naturally from behavior, sturdily shaped by helmer Andrew Block. The characters’ physicality consistently reflects how well each pair of characters know each other, and to what degree of intimacy. That’s why the air of everyday reality is ever present, even when events proceed out of control to Tarantino-esque dimensions.
Though the thick accents are more South Boston than southern New Hampshire, they offer a sound convincingly alien to Southern Californian ears. In all other respects these performances are unimprovable. Bernthal’s feckless sensuality as an 18-year-old “playa” trapped in a middle-aged burnout’s body works potently against Josh Helman’s Northeastern freshman, who brings a contrast of class and some really good drugs into the web of three overaged boyhood pals.
Pollono, seething with regret, excels in the toughest role while Michael Redfield walks off with the evening in its most colorful one. Packie Hanrahan, as tiny of stature as a leprechaun (he’s “magically delicious” according to his pals), still lives alone in his mid-30s with a nonagenarian granny and 24/7 Internet porn. Opportunities for self-pity abound for this character, but as Redfield plays him — so far past inebriated as to be positively pickled — there’s no end of joy in his hapless bumbling yet irrepressible love of life.