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      The Last Carburetor
    Hitting on all cylinders

    "The Last Carburetor" is a well-oiled machine — a dysfunctional-family drama with a smart script, perfect ensemble acting, and laughs in all the right places.


    Maybe Tolstoy was wrong when he said that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way — stories about dysfunctional families are as common as a cold, and sometimes they seem to all be working through the same issues. Fortunately, not every dysfunctional-family play is alike, and "The Last Carburetor" is one of the extraordinary ones.

    Written by: Leon Chase.
    Directed by: Susanna Harris.
    Cast: Jeremy Schwartz, Susan O'Connor, Howard Taylor, Paul Witte, Rodney R. To, Tara Gibson.
    It's the story of a family of interchangeable parts — the mother has just disappeared somewhere, but estranged brother Keith (Jeremy Schwartz) has just mysteriously returned from California, found by the police lying on the side of the road. His brother Josh (Paul Witte), an ex-Marine, uses his connections with the cops to spring Keith, a former Silicon Valley golden boy, and bring him home. And quite a home it is. Dad (Wilbur Henry), a laid-off steelworker, mopes around with phony cheerfulness, trying not to wonder where mom went, while Josh prowls the premises with a just-discernible air of suppressed fury. Sister Ayla (Susan O'Connor) moans about the useless men of the family and waits impatiently until she can go back to school in Ann Arbor.

    The "carburetor" in this story refers to the broken-down '70 Plymouth Barracuda in the garage, the classic muscle car that would perfectly complement Josh's personality if dad would let him fix it up. Today's cars with their computer-controlled engines just don't compare to that good old Detroit machismo, Josh thinks. With a modern car, "you couldn't even soup it up if you wanted to," he sneers. "What are you going to do — program it to go faster?"

    What sets this play apart is, simply, great writing and great acting. First-time playwright Leon Chase has a gift for bringing out his characters' eccentricities and making just about every seemingly ordinary line of dialogue carry meaning and humor. One small example shows the script's subtle skill: There's a point when dad Doug, a pacifist Vietnam vet, is talking irritably on the phone to daughter Ayla while Josh cleans his rifle at the kitchen table. We hear only his side of the conversation:

    "Oh, it's not that. You're brother's being an asshole again," dad says. "No, the other one. . . . Yeah, I know."

    What makes this funny on stage is that the "asshole" brother is sitting right there hearing the whole thing. What makes it masterful is that here, in fewer than 20 words, we understand the entire four-person dynamic without hearing it explained in explicit detail. Every character has a personality and a history, and much of what we learn about them is between the lines.

    The entire ensemble cast is outstanding. O'Connor is something of a marquee name in downtown theater for her work in "Never Swim Alone," "See Bob Run," and "Take," and again she makes the most of an innocent-seeming girlish character who turns out to have a concealed dangerous side. Her character (who's away in college for half the play) takes a slight back seat, though, to those of Schwartz, Witte and Henry, whose characters are prickly, self-deluded, faintly ridiculous — in other words, just like people you know. Rounding out the cast are Tara Gibson as Keith's ex-girlfriend and Rodney R. To as Ayla's college boyfriend. The performances are natural, unforced and human, which exactly fits the story — an around-the-house comedy-drama in which just making a sandwich in the kitchen or changing the oil in the car is a revealing event.

    DECEMBER 21, 2001

    Reader comments on The Last Carburetor:

  • personally, i thought it sucked   from glenn jones, Sep 11, 2002
  • didn't see it but hey leon...   from kristine, Oct 2, 2005
  • been a while   from me, Oct 29, 2005

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