John Pollono can relate to struggle. The New Hampshire raised, Los Angeles based playwright struck dramatic gold in 2013 with Small Engine Repair, a comic thriller about blue collar high school buddies-now grown- who meet regularly at a repair shop. Pollono both wrote and starred in the critically lauded production, which was first seen in Los Angeles and later at New York’s MCC Theater. Prior to that, however, he was well accustomed to making ends meet, much like the characters he’s created.
His latest play, Lost Girls, is a sort of companion piece to Small Engine Repair and deals with similar themes and personalities. Set in New Hampshire, The MCC Production tells an inter-generational tale about a teenage girl who skips school during a snow storm and embarks on a daring road trip with her star athlete friend turned boyfriend. Her mother, grandmother, father, and step-mother anxiously await news of her safety. In the meantime, they learn more about themselves and their damaged,but caring relationships to each other. The play has plenty of girl power, an angle which Pollono knows quite well, having been raised with three sisters. “Small Engine Repair was very testosterone driven and I was really interested in creating Lost Girls with similar themes, but from a woman’s point of view.”, he said in a recent phone conversation. “My leading lady, Maggie, is flawed and aggressive, but she’s also tough and is a survivor.”
Pollono’s two older sisters were single mothers, one of whom battled a nasty divorce. Pulling from those influences, as well as from his native New Hampshire town, Pollono’s work defines verisimilitude and his audiences have shared their reactions with him. “My experience from an audience perspective is that, the more specific you get with location, time, and people, the more universal the piece becomes. When you specify rather than generalizing, people feel more connected,” he said. He continued by explaining the personal touch he infused into his teenage characters. “When I was 17, I fell in love with a girl and really believed—like this kid—that love would conquer all. when we’re young, we think that it will work out. But when we get older and look back, we think we were idiots,” he admitted. Still, he hopes his audience to fall in love with the idea of his teen leads falling in love.
Pollono also wishes to share a glimpse of working class hardship with the masses. “For the most part, New York theater audiences are white, upper class, and educated. For me, the struggle has always been a real experience, but somehow, when you put it on stage, it’s as if audiences are looking through a peephole at the working class. It’s not as if I want to humanize these characters, but at least I can maybe get people to understand someone’s stress a little bit better.”
Lost Girls star Tasha Lawrence plays Linda, a take no prisoners, opinionated matriarch who Lawrence said (also via phone), “hasn’t given up on life. She just doesn’t give a shit what other people think.” Lawrence is also quick to share her enthusiasm for Pollono’s work. “His characters are so well carved out that I just pulled everything from the story. The beauty of his writing is that he’s able to make potentially unlikable characters quite likable.” she said. “The heart of the script is that these people have a deep love and understanding for each other” She also relishes in the fact that she doesn’t need to do her hair when she comes to theater. “It’s fun to put on your pajamas and slouch around onstage!” Lawrence had a clear understanding in playing the role through childhood memories with her father, a Canadian car auctioneer. “When I was a kid, I used to love to go with him. There were gruff men eating hot dogs and smoking. It was this big loud world—and I loved it. Pollono’s characters remind me a lot of that.” Incidentally, Lawrence herself followed in her father’s footsteps and also became a certified auctioneer. Lawrence did a reading of the play about a year ago with director Jo Bonney (who she enthusiastically praises as a director who “makes everyone a better actor” ) and received an offer to join the cast when the MCC premiere was announced. (On a personal note, Lawrence is a must see in this show. Her fellow ensemble members are also fantastic, but Lawrence is quite simply a marvel.)
On the surface, Pollono’s latest work could be viewed simply as a “slice of life” piece, but he asserts that there is more. “I’ve really tried to put a lot of challenging, thematic stuff in this, specifically in regards to gender. If these characters were men, we wouldn’t have the same perception. Because these are strong women, we quickly label them in a derogatory manner.” he observed. “At our core, we all just want connectedness.”
Pollono’s last two works clocked in at 90 minutes or less, an increasing trend in today’s theater landscape. It’s not intentional, however. “I’ve written longer plays,” he said. “By design, Lost Girls is a simple story with complicated characters. But I think that if you can tell a story and be satisfied from beginning to end in 90 minutes, it will be more effective than telling that same story in two hours.”
Pollono’s next tale will take him to the silver screen. He’s hard at work on an adaptation of the book Stronger, the real life story of Boston marathon survivor, Jeff Bauman. He recently spent a month with Bauman and hopes that the film will begin shooting in Spring 2016. Pollono is also writing an original TV series with his friend and fellow writer, Kemp Powers, with the working title My First Black Friend. With such a full docket, let’s hope to the creative Gods that Pollono will speak of struggle in the past tense.
Lost Girls has been extended through December 4th at the Lucille Lortel Theatre 121 Christopher Street. For tickets and info, click here.