“Luka’s Room” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

Carpe diem – “seize the day” – could well be the subtitle for Luka’s Room by Rob Mersola. Every character in the play is a grabber of diems – and sometimes a bunch of other things, too – and the result is a completely engaging, frequently startling, and thoroughly satisfying new play, which has (lucky you!) been extended through October 4 at Rogue Machine.

19-year-old Luka (Nick Marini) arrives from Phoenix at Grandma Franca’s (Joanna Lipari) house in the San Fernando Valley, where he’ll live while attending a local college. He’d been at Arizona State, but his dad AJ (Vince Melocchi) suffered financial reverses – and is going through a divorce from his current wife – and can’t afford the more expensive tuition there. Bummer. Thankfully there’s Grandma, with a house and dad’s old room and lots of good Italian cooking.

Also staying with Grandma Franca is Luka’s uncle Nick (Alex Fernandez), recently released from jail – but we don’t want to dwell on that, do we?
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Grandma’s house is a little backward. She has a big ol’ non-flatscreen TV, on which she watches game shows, but no internet and no computer. Well, guess what? Uncle Nick happens to work for some people who – well, never mind – but he can get stuff for free and, before you know it, he’s outfitted Luka’s room with a computer and hi-speed internet and a flat-screen and cable and ain’t it grand?

Turns out Uncle Nick – a really great guy, let’s not talk about the jail stuff, okay? – also does just a tiny bit of pot-dealing on the side, and has some great weed to share with Luka, who’s more than eager. And when, one day, one of Nick’s customers, a hot chick named Angie (Sarah Scott), stops by while Nick is out, the cool unc tells Luka via cell where to find the stash to sell her and complete the deal.

Before you can say “WTF?!?” Luka and Angie become an item, with the naïve, virginal Luka stunned – in a fabuloso way – by Angie’s fervent attentions. Wow! WTF?!? And, after an unfortunate night where Grandma happens to walk in on Luka and Angie and it becomes awkward and Angie pulls away, Luka finds solace – with Nick’s enthusiastic approval – by banging a series of other willing girls. It’s amazing, really, how much sex young Luka winds up having in his room.
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Well, sometimes things really are too good to be true, and that turns out to be the case here, and with twists and turns and unexpected reversals, we find out that a lot of what we’ve been watching isn’t what it seems.

For, you see, in this play, everyone seizes the day, and that can be problematic. Luka grabs at the comfort of Grandma’s cooking, and the easy-peasy don’t-worry-about-it technological marvels provided by Uncle Nick, not to mention the really-easy-peasy charms of Angie, a dream come true. Nick seizes the opportunity to hang out with a housemate who’s not his mother, who’s up for getting high, and who provides an interesting business opportunity. Angie lunges at the chance to be a hot chick with Luka, whose (unseen to us) member is apparently monumental. Luka’s dad AJ, who comes back to Mom’s house in a rage, proves more than willing to ditch the rage and grab onto a lucrative proposition. The only person who doesn’t seem all that into seizing the day is the old lady – but even she succumbs to the temptation to be… comfortable. No, I won’t explain – you just have to see the play, but I guarantee the moment will surprise you.
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At the end, Luka – whom we’ve come to like tremendously – proves to be the carpe diem-est of the characters. It’s a turnabout no one sees coming, but it’s well set-up, makes sense, and is eminently satisfying.

If I’m vague about the specifics of what happens, that’s deliberate. The joy of this play is that you’re going along a certain path when, suddenly, there’s a twist, and everything you’ve seen to that point changes. Then there’s another. And another. The twists are startling and unexpected, yet perfectly calibrated and logical.

The performances are uniformly splendid. Mr. Melocchi and Mr. Fernandez are the brothers from hell, thuggish yet curiously sympathetic. Ms Scott is trashy and slutty yet so truthful that you can’t help but feel empathy. Ms Lipari starts out as a refugee from a sitcom, but transmogrifies into a figure at once comic and tragic – and her bravery in the “comfortable” scene is wonderful.

But it’s Mr. Marini who’s a revelation. At the beginning, he seems a typical semi-loutish millennial, adept at the technology but clueless about everything else. So when he discovers he’s become the victim of greed, we’re not surprised at his aggrieved response. However, the playwright Mr. Mersola has something more devious in mind. Between the last two scenes, several weeks elapse: it’s not a huge amount of time, but some very specific changes must take place in Luka, both physically and emotionally. A good actor can manage the emotional changes, but it takes an exceptional actor to make himself actually appear physically more imposing – more muscular and in command – with nothing more than a few seconds of darkness between scenes. That Mr. Marini manages this feat presages many more exceptional performances to come. Bravo!

As for why the play is so “satisfying”? Because, aside from the fine acting and excellent direction by Joshua Bitton and good production values, the playwright has managed the rare feat of sating us while leaving many questions unanswered. Is AJ really in financial straits or is it a ploy in his divorce? Is Nick gay, asexual, or a player as he insists? Is there really a “curse” on the family as Grandma wails, or is that a legend? How much does Angie really care for Luka? Who knows? Who cares? There’s so much ambiguity that the play ends as intriguingly as it has begun. However, Luka’s Room isn’t obscure, and doesn’t try to confuse you, as too many plays do. It may try to trick you – and it succeeds – but that’s a whole other thing. Go see this show – it’s terrific.

Luka’s Room
Written by Rob Mersola
Directed by Joshua Bitton

Through October 4

Rogue Machine (in Theatre/Theater)
5041 W. Pico Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90019
Tickets: 855-585-5185 or www.roguemachinetheatre.com


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