“Luka’s Room,” a smashing new play in its world premiere performance at Rogue Machine Theatre, literally haunts my dreams. I roused from slumber into the twilight zone of limited consciousness several times after experiencing “Luka’s Room” as scenes replayed themselves and the salient issues of the show danced around the edges of my mind. What issues? First and foremost, the objectification of women, driven home by the character Nick (Alex Fernandez, thoroughly brilliant in the portrayal of a smart, loathsome low-life), the “cool” uncle to the title character, Luka (excellent Nick Marini), a naïve, attractive nineteen year-old college student. Nick, an ex-con with shady connections, is a sexual Svengali, encouraging his nephew to regard women as disposable, to be used and forgotten, as many as one can, although Nick himself shows no evidence of that life style. He uses the crudest terms in encouraging his nephew toward sexual debauchery, terms that may well offend some members of the audience (two women in front of me left the theatre two-thirds of the way through the ninety-plus minutes of the performance; had enough I guess). Then there are issues of the Internet and social media that could have been ripped from last week’s news feeds.
Because his father, AJ (smoothly dangerous Vince Melocchi), seems to have had some financial reversals, Luka has been made to leave Arizona State to go to live with his Grandmother Franca (the astonishing Joanna Lipari), and take up studies at “Valley,” a community college. He moves into his dad’s old room, and is surprised to find his uncle, who he thought was in prison, living in the room across the hall. His uncle Nick buddies up to him with lots of laughter and touching, using his avuncularity to gain Luka’s affections. He installs a large format television in Luka’s room as well as a new desktop computer. Where did these expensive items come from? Well, Nick has friends.
When an attractive young woman, Angie (lovely Sarah Scott, intense and boldly focused) shows up at the door seeking to score some marijuana from the absent Nick, Luka takes care of it. He falls for her and why not, she is pretty, sexy and she exchanges phone numbers with the boy. After a few off-stage encounters, they inevitably wind up in Luka’s room.
Playwright Rob Mersola has written an intense family drama filled with head-shaking moments of sheer comedy as well has scenes of wrenching poignancy and tenderness. There are some staggering, jaw-dropping scenes with surprises of plot and action that make me shake my head as I write this. The play is written as a series of sequential vignettes, all taking place in Franca’s house. In the half-light interludes between scenes, the cast makes minor set changes while staying in character as the deftly chosen music (sound design by Christopher Moscatiello) – most often songs of vintage Italian-American crooners with some hip-hop and unusual covers of rock classics – compliments the story.
Under the inspired direction of Joshua Bitton, “Luka’s Room” boasts a fine cast of players at the top of their game, a tight ensemble totally, often brazenly, invested in the work. The set design by John Iacovelli (lit by Leigh Allen) is superb, convincingly representing a San Fernando Valley home with an outside door, a living-dining room, a swinging door to a kitchen upstage and a corridor leading to Luka’s rather spacious room and the door to Nick’s room visible on the opposite side of the corridor. That is a lot of house in a tiny space! Michèle Young’s costumes are ideal, matching the individual character arcs.
The production is a technological wonder, with computer screens allowing Skype-like conversations and real-time video of crucial action with projections designed by Nicholas Santiago.
“Luka’s Room” makes me reach for superlatives beyond the hackneyed. The show is touching, disturbing, astonishing and often unsettlingly uncomfortable to experience, just as great theatre should be. And, yes, some will be offended. Can’t be helped.