By Adam Markovitz
Updated November 19, 2013 at 05:00 AM EST
Joan Marcus

As 75-minute one-act single-setting four-person comedy-thrillers go, Small Engine Repair isn’t half bad. It’s a savvily written piece of punchline theater — the kind of play with 60 minutes of talky preamble leading up to one scene that’s funny, nerve-wracking, and ballsy enough to justify the whole show. (No spoilers here, though.)

As such, the set-up is pretty dull: Single-dad mechanic Frank (the play’s author, John Pollono) invites two old pals — naïve Packie (James Ransone of AMC’s Low Winter Sun) and macho Swaino (Iron Man 3‘s James Badge Dale) — to his New England auto repair shop for a drink that takes a dark turn upon the arrival of Chad (Pretty Little Liars star Keegan Allen), a college jock who deals ecstasy. There are no scene breaks, just a straight-shot dramatic arc that propels the characters from small talk directly into life-or-death decisions in real time. The actors are game (and clearly having a ball with their Beantown accents), and the play guides your expectations so smoothly that you’re half-shocked to suddenly realize that the coming-of-middle-age comedy you were watching has stealthily morphed into something like a mishmash of Fargo and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope.

But Small Engine Report, running through Dec. 8 at Off Broadway’s Lucille Lortel Theatre, doesn’t have the subtlety of those movies. It forces its high stakes in a way that doesn’t feel organic to its small-dreaming characters, so that when Frank ends up with a gun in his hand, it feels more like the play’s doing than his own. And that big, splashy, go-for-broke scene at the end — which incorporates a lewd prop sure to get hoots from any crowd — ventures into the territory of lesser sitcom writing, where a bawdy sight gag is its own reason for being.

Still, Small Engine Repair‘s lean running time makes its faults easy to forgive. Like the title implies: For a small tweak at an undemanding price, this place’ll do fine. For more ambitious work, you’re better off looking elsewhere. B?