Los Angeles Theater Review: LUKA’S ROOM (Rogue Machine Theatre)

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by Jason Rohrer on August 15, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles


In Rob Mersola’s Luka’s Room, Nick Marini plays a blithe, typical, technology-addicted college sophomore who has a rough summer after his father stops paying Arizona State tuition. Luka has to move in with his senile grandmother (Joanna Lipari) and pot-dealer ex-con uncle (Alex Fernandez). The kid’s fall from an upper-middle-class dorm to his dad’s boyhood bedroom in a Valley tract house (“There’s no TV!”) is gently broken when he falls for a hot girl (Sarah Scott) who likes going to bed with him. But as in every good coming-of-age story, what happens in Luka’s room is more than just sex. It’s about being awakened to the world of good and evil; it’s about finding out you’re a part of a tribe, some of whom will tell you straight out: it’s not all about you. It’s all about them.

Nick Marini, Joanna Lipari, and Alex Fernandez in LUKA'S ROOM at Rogue Machine Theatre.

Marini is outstanding as Luka, technically perfect – timing, physicality, presence of mind when set dressing and lighting instruments go awry – and generously emotive. His journey from naif to adult is not subtly conveyed but it doesn’t need to be. His readings are always intelligent and always credible. As the sleazy uncle, Fernandez is all over the place making this show hum. He supports and elevates Marini’s star turn on every level; it’s a very giving performance. But the flash role allows the actor so many of his own sharp, toothy moments that you never feel he’s sacrificing himself. (You can see how good he is with actors over in Venice right now, in his don’t-miss-it direction, via alter-ego Guillermo Cienfuegos, of Pinter’s The Homecoming, playing through August 30.)

With almost the entire stage time including one or both of these actors, the audience never has the chance to doubt whether the show is worth watching. And it’s not just casting. Mersola’s new script is classic American well-made-play writing, funny when it should be, arresting and cathartic if you go with it, shocking even. If the story feels pat after the fact, a bit intellectual or inorganic, it is not cheap in its tricks, and overall it’s more smart than tricky. It outsmarted me, and I’m a goddamn genius.

Nick Marini and Sarah Scott in LUKA'S ROOM at Rogue Machine Theatre.

Joshua Bitton directs people well: Scott is an adolescent’s dream, heartbreakingly human and impossible; as the father, Ron Bottitta (subbing this weekend for Vince Melocchi) kicks moments to life as if they were motorcycles. And Bitton knows this script inside and out, finding humor and pathos and beat after well-defined beat. Under his hand the show never overreaches and does much to sell its script. He gets a very nice brawl out of violence designer Ned Mochel. Less thrilling is Bitton’s work framing grandma’s dementia; moments this big demand pride of place within a scene. But then, I’m not sure Lipari is entirely right for the role; brave as it is, her performance is just like her underwritten character: a bit glib. Both could benefit from some gravity. A related issue, perhaps the same one:

I don’t think realism is the ideal treatment for this script. Bitton makes good use of a deadly-convincing Grandma’s house set by John Iacovelli and neatly invisible lights by Leigh Allen; similarly, Michèle Young’s costumes are a deliberate design choice, to be as unflattering as a bathroom mirror at 3 a.m. (with a well-considered exception). At a revelatory moment, Bitton does provide one stylized burst of video (Nicholas Santiago) and sound (Christopher Moscatiello), but the moment, while well-executed, jarred me when surrounded by all that normalcy.

Alex Fernandez and Nick Marini in LUKA'S ROOM at Rogue Machine Theatre.

There are bravura surprises and broad humor throughout this world, as well as some plot twists that might ravel better within a slightly heightened reality. The mostly-absentee father could use a less matter-of-fact, more illuminated gesture or two to support his 11 o’clock heart-to-heart with his son. Luka’s straight-outta-Mayberry guilelessness in this up-to-the-minute setting, and grandma’s occasional outbursts of theme-heavy doomsaying, could both jibe happily in a staged universe less like this one than like a mild exaggeration, a distortion, a version of this one. Then I’d feel not as if I were watching a show I could see on a good night of television, but as if I were having an inherently theatrical experience.

This is what it is: it’s a good play. You should see it. John Flynn and Jen Pollono have produced another winner. The script is sensical, compelling, moving. The set and lights and acting are never bad and mostly excellent. The direction is weighed and intentional and effective. The overall quality of this production speaks for the heroism of the few grown-up 99-seat companies like Rogue Machine, in the flux where modern theater lives. Sure, it’s hard to attract, on a shoestring, year in year out, this much talent and skill and effort. But a lot more people will go see a lot more theater when the average play in America is this good.

Alex Fernandez and Joanna Lipari in LUKA'S ROOM at Rogue Machine Theatre.

photos by John Perrin Flynn

Luka’s Room
Rogue Machine Theatre
Theatre Theater, 5041 West Pico Blvd
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 3
ends on September 20, 2015
for tickets, 855-585-5185 or visit www.roguemachinetheatre.com

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