Grandma Franca's Curse

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Sometimes the trickiest thing about working on a new play is figuring out what to leave out. It's the opposite of the terror of the blank page: when there's nothing. It happens when you have a couple of characters you like and maybe a plot with a little bit of zip. What happens when there's too much? When the characters want to go a different direction than the story? Which do you choose?

That's the challenge with Rob Mersola's world premiere at the Rogue Machine Theatre, Luka's Room.

The setup is: Luka's not quite 21 and because of his Dad's second, or maybe third, divorce and mysterious financial implosion -- Luka has to move in with his Grandma Franca and his hoodlum uncle, Nick. It's like stepping back into time: partly it's his Grandma's knickknacks from the old country and sleeping in his Dad's room, which still has the Ferris Bueller and '84 Olympics posters on the wall. But it's also the dynamic of this awkward trio. His uncle, who's just out of jail -- sorry County Prison -- is not only shady, he's a bit of man-child. Then there's Grandma, who if you had any Italian friends or relatives -- you'll recognize immediately. She's puttering about in her house coat, putting old bread in the sun for meatballs, and waiting for Jeopardy to come on. When Luka shows up on her doorstep, it takes Grandma Franca back too -- he's the spitting image of her dead husband. It's unsettling. It shakes something loose from her past.

Luka's Room begins with a few unsure scenes that feel like character studies while the playwright finds his way into this world. Then our catalyst arrives in the form of Angie: a beautiful 25-year-old who shows up to buy pot from Luka's uncle. Luka's smitten and, as they say, we're off to the races.

I won't spoil the plot for you. It's one of those plays where plot is key and it falls squarely in the Rogue Machine mold where a mid-play revelation turns everything you've seen on its head. The trouble is the plot's a little too clever and leads us away from the characters rather than deeper into them. Once the big surprise happens it oddly lowers the stakes rather than raising them.

Perhaps it's the curse of good acting? But I found the plot a little too easy and the actors far more compelling. The heart of this play isn't the cooked up Internet craziness. It's wrapped up in the family dynamics of time. It’s in actress Joanna Lipari's beautifully brave performance as Grandma Franca, a woman who's losing her moorings in time. It's Franca’s sexual exploits that I'm fascinated by -- not Luka's.

But what do you do? The plot wanted to go one way, the characters the other. The playwright chose plot.

Luka's Room is still worth seeing for the performances. Just don't be surprised when the play leaves Grandma Franca's meatballs and the mysteries of the past behind.

Luka's Room plays at the Rogue Machine Theatre on Pico through September 20.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Run time: 1 hour 40 minutes without an intermission.

Photo: Nick Marini, Joanna Lipari and Alex Fernandez in Luka's Room. (John Perrin Flynn)