A combination of laughs and groans of recognition from the Mark Taper Forum audience greeted Wednesday night's performance of "Living Out," Lisa Loomer's new dead-on study of the complex and uneasy relationship between affluent Los Angeles Westsiders and Latina nannies who care for their children.
Unlike September's Taper offering, "Nickel and Dimed," another exploration of the traumas of the working poor, "Living Out" does not point an accusing finger only toward wealthy employers, or rail about the politics of minimum-wage reform, but instead tells both sides of a very human story in a way that is both poignant and outrageously funny.
The scenic backdrop for Loomer's play is a page, or maybe a couple of pages, from the center of the Thomas Guide to Los Angeles, blown up and projected against the back wall of Christopher Acebo's sparse set. Whether anyone who hails from outside the geographic range of the Thomas Guide would understand all of Loomer's inside L.A. jokes about the Wild Flour bakery or the perils of trying to get from Santa Monica to Staples Center on time for a Stones concert if you take the 10 is an open question.
The ethnicity of immigrant nannies -- or, as one guilty employer insists on calling them, "caregivers," because "nannies" is too British -- may vary around the country. Still, the domino effect of a dual-career society in which even the nannies are working overtime in order to pay someone else to take care of their kids would resonate in just about any urban environment in America.
"Living Out" is the third Loomer play to be presented at the Taper. The first was 1994's "The Waiting Room," a historical comedy-fantasy of sorts in which three women from different cultures and eras await medical attention for problems caused by trying to achieve the feminine ideal: a Chinese woman with bound feet, a Victorian waiting for an ovariotomy, and a modern-day party girl with problem breast implants. The second, "Expecting Isabel," presented in 2000, detailed the lives of a conflicted New York couple going through the excruciating process of in-vitro fertilization.
With her previous focus on women's issues -- yeah, there's a couple facing infertility in "Expecting Isabel," but, realistically, who's taking the hormone shots? -- it seems only fitting that "Living Out" would examine the interdependence of two cultures and economic classes mainly through the eyes of two women: attorney Nancy (Amy Aquino), a new mother who has just relocated to Santa Monica from Silver Lake with her husband because she perceives life on the Westside to be safer and more smog free, and her new nanny, Ana (Zilah Mendoza), who has lied that her own children are being cared for back home in El Salvador in order to secure a job.
For anyone who occasionally picks up the weekend Real Estate section, it rings a bit false that Loomer would attempt to draw such a cultural contrast between trendy Silver Lake and trendy Santa Monica when it comes to the presence of nannies, yoga classes and sugar-free baked goods; Nancy doesn't exactly need immigration papers to relocate to her new home.
Still, what does ring true is how Nancy's values begin to change after parenthood, which seems to send guilty liberals previously in favor of public transportation and education suddenly scurrying to buy Volvos and locate the best private schools. And through the hesitant friendship of Nancy and Ana, Loomer raises the difficult and less commonly explored question of how much responsibility even an affluent employer can assume for the financial, legal or personal troubles of an employee from an impoverished homeland, even if that employer insists that her nanny is "part of the family."
While Loomer takes their interweaving story perilously close to the edge of melodrama, layered performances by both actresses, particularly the luminously rebellious Mendoza as Ana, keep the action compelling -- and, in the moment, the fact that certain events are predictable makes them no less moving.
In the case of the other characters, Loomer gets away with cartoons that work just because they're so funny (an exception is Carlos Gomez in a strongly nuanced turn as Ana's confused, chronically unemployed husband). The same Santa Monica park bench serves, at different times of the day, as the gathering place for the moms and the nannies -- and in both cases, Nancy and Ana find themselves, as neighborhood newcomers, sandwiched between Santa Monica lifers who cheerfully share their survival tips and rampant prejudices about the other group. It's a long play at 2 1/2 hours, but director Bill Rauch, artistic director and co-founder of L.A.'s socially conscious Cornerstone Theater Company, keeps the pace fast and furious.
The only cartoon character who doesn't manage to survive the sendup is Nancy's public defender husband, Richard (Daniel Hugh Kelly), a clueless man-child who skips through life thinking he understands the range of Latino culture by listening to the Buena Vista Social Club. Even the most biased of the moms and nannies come across as real people; both as written and as portrayed, this guy is just a cheap shot.
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Added matinee March 5, 2:30 p.m.
Ends: March 9
Price: $31 to $45
Contact: (213) 628-2772
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Zilah Mendoza... Ana
Daniel Hugh Kelly...Richard
Kate A. Mulligan...Wallace
Written by Lisa Loomer. Directed by Bill Rauch. Set design by Christopher Acebo. Costume design by Candice Cain. Lighting design by Lap-Chi Chu. Sound design by Jon Gottlieb. Original music composed by Joe Romano. Production stage manager Mary Michele Miner.