By Jerry Portwood
Allen & Ransone in a scene from 'Small Engine Repair' | Photo by Joan Marcus
Hordes of Instagram-happy fans have been trying to take surreptitious snaps of the guys on stage of Small Engine Repair every night—which includes Pretty Little Liars' Keegan Allen—even though signs warn that it's against the theater's policy and their smartphones will be confiscated. The irony of the schoolhouse behavior hasn't been lost on the show's stars since the play deals with technology and social media and how it can ruin lives, even when someone thinks they're innocent of any wrongdoing.
"The show exploits the Internet and how we are all connected and disconnected," Allen explains. "We had a talk back after one of the shows and, it turns out, all these parents have no idea what FourSquare is! They have no idea about how photos get posted on the Internet, are circulated, get on Reddit and will never be gone. There are terrible things on the Internet that will never be erased."
This topic is central to Small Engine Repair, but it's difficult to discuss the intricacies of the play, a thrilling dramedy written by John Pollono (who also plays the main character, Frank, at its core) that continues its run at MCC through December 21, since it's full of plot twists and turns and no one wants to spoil the surprises for fear of ruining the fun and fear-factors for future audiences. But let's say that it's a buddy play—Pollono is joined by James Ransone and James Badge Dale who play close friends Packie and Swaino—that delves into class (Allen's character, Chad, is a preppy outsider), sexuality, and gender issues while also trucking heavily in the complexities of our techno-driven society and the accidental destruction it can cause. For fear of being reductive, think of it as Mystic River-meets-The Social Network with lots of unexpected, yet satisfying, detours.
Despite all of the trepidation around social media, most of the all-male cast is heavily involved with Twitter, Instagram, and tumblr and haven't shied away from harnessing its power. In the play, Packie fully embraces technology, for example, and in his day-to-day interactions, Ransone doesn't seem so different. The day I interviewed Ransone—who is known to many as Ziggy from the second season of The Wire, as well from his role on Generation Kill (he also ahs a small role in Spike Lee's Oldboy in theaters now)—by phone while he walked his dog, he had tweeted kooky revelations that ranged from an admission that he looks like KD Lang to answering fans' questions about his role in the play.
"I believe the Internet is at the very beginning stages of the 'hive mind' coming together," Ranson says. "We're becoming one gigantic organism. We are here to make technology, it's a force to make us evolve, but we can't understand what we have at our fingertips—all the knowledge of mankind is accessible on our phone. Because it's so new, we tend to see the worst possibilities."
But that doesn't mean that he thinks people should let themselves be controlled by the same technology. He says he's fully aware of the power of a photo, and what it can do to shame or embolden people into unintentinoal bullying.
"I think the irony is that Keegan's fan base, they're a much younger crowd, and these girls, they're taking pictures of the performance and the whole play, and the whole play is about a photo," Ransone says. "How the fuck is the irony not lost on you right now! That's what blows my mind! Not the fact that people would spoil it, but that they would stop engaging with the story and stop paying attention; you've lost the experience."
Keegan, someone who surely knows what it feels like to have shirtless photos of himself floating about and out of his control, agrees. "Theater is a totally sacred thing," he says. "When you take a picture of something, it's out there forever, the Internet swallows it; there's really nothing to monitor that. It is kind of fucking annoying, but you know, it's that demographic, they don't know that it's not appropriate."
He implores anyone coming to the show to resist the temptation to Instagram or tweet during it. "And if you're one of the lucky few under 17 who coaxed your parents into believing it's some family night, it's definitely a mind-bending experience, and make you think of your relationship to social media and technology in general," he says. "I think it's a very good life lesson. And the progressive parents who bring their children, they've been really happy that they did."
Small Engine Repair continues through Dec. 21 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, NYC. For tickets, visit the website.