Leave it to Rob Mersola, the playwright who gave audiences Backseats & Bathroom Stalls and Dirty Filthy Love Story, to subvert the teenage coming-of-age tale in the most outrageously unexpected of ways in Luka’s Room, the latest Rogue Machine World Premiere and sure to be one of this summer’s most buzzed-about productions.
Teenagers don’t get much more innocent than not-quite-twenty-year-old Luka (Nick Marini), whose arrival at the San Fernando house his elderly Italian-American grandmother Franca (Joanna Lipari) calls home is but the first of several life changes the handsome teen is about to undergo.
Forced into the move by his dad’s financial woes, college student Luka finds himself with neither a computer, the Internet, or cable TV to fill his free time. (Grandma does have an ancient living room console for her daily dose of Jeopardy, but come on, really?)
Fortunately for our young hero, who should also be staying at Franca’s but her other son Nick (Alex Fernandez), fresh from a three-month stint in county jail for credit card fraud and identity theft, and before you can say “superfast desktop computer and flat widescreen TV,” that’s exactly what Uncle Nick has installed in Luka’s room.
And as if this weren’t already enough to make a teen boy happy, lo and behold an angel arrives one day at Grandma’s front door in the person of leggy blonde beauty Angie (Sarah Scott), there to purchase eighty dollars worth of weed from her friendly neighborhood pot dealer.
Said dealer (Nick if you hadn’t already guessed it) may be out for the moment, but thanks to cell phone technology, Unc is able to talk Luka through the sale, one which results not only in Angie getting (and sharing) her stash but just enough sparks between her and Nick for her to give him her digits before heading off.
Still, what teenager can complain about a) getting regular nookie, b) making pocket money at Jack In The Box and c) being served Italian food on a regular basis? (If only Grandma Franca didn’t keep mistaking him for her late husband. If only this didn’t mean Grandma might be on the verge of losing her mind.)
To reveal what else Luka’s Room has in store for audiences would be criminal. Suffice it to say that playwright Mersola does not disappoint in his latest surefire hit.
Joshua Bitton, who starred in both of Mersola’s previous comedies, takes over directorial reins for Luka’s Room, and splendidly so, coaxing just-right performances from an all-around stellar cast.
As bad boy Uncle Nick, Fernandez delivers one of the year’s most colorful star turns. By turns sweet and sizzling, a sensational Scott lights up the stage the way Angie lights up Luka’s life. Veteran thespian Lipari defies stereotyping as Grandma Franca, investing the role with poignancy and depth while going where few actresses her age and type have gone before. Alternate Ron Bottitta may be as English as they get in real life but he was born to play Jersey boys like Luka’s dad AJ, a cameo he knocks out of the ballpark.
Last but most definitely not least is a pitch-perfect Marini, who makes us believe in a nineteen-year-old’s innocence, both sexual and emotional (and in his cluelessness to his runway model cheekbones). With not a false note in the L.A. newcomer’s supremely natural performance, you can expect to be hearing much more from Marini in the months to come.
Rogue Machine gives Luka’s Room the kind of world-class production design Angelinos have come to expect from our treasured 99-seat-plan, a crème-de-la-crème team of talents headed by scenic designer John Iacovelli, whose San Fernando house has precisely the lived-in, stuck-in-a-time-warp look you’d expect Grandma Franca’s to have. Leigh Allen lights it to perfection, with Nicholas Santiago’s video design doing stunningly unexpected things. Michèle Young’s costumes reflect each character’s age and personality to perfection. Christopher Moscatiello’s topnotch sound design links scenes with as assortment of the Rat Pack’s Greatest Hits. As for the production’s “violence design,” there’s no fight choreographer more brilliant than Ned Mochel, who once again makes you wonder how his actors can survive their nightly knock-down drag-outs without injury.
Ramón Valdez is stage manager. Amanda Mauer is production manager. Aaron Newman is assistant director. David A. Mauer is technical director. Casting is by Victoria Hoffman. Luka’s Room is produced by John Perrin Flynn and Jen Pollono.
If I went crazy about Rob Mersola’s Backseats & Bathroom Stalls (aka Love Sucks) and Dirty Filthy Love Story, I’m every bit as nuts about Luka’s Room. Leave it to Mersola to take a tried-and-true genre and make it surprisingly, subversively fresh and new.
Rogue Machine, 5041 W. Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles.
August 14, 2105
Photos: John Perrin Flynn