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Familiarity and Contempt

Photo by Craig Schwartz

AFTER WATCHING LISA LOOMER'S NEW COMEDY, Living Out (at the Taper), about nannies and their Westside employers, I found myself wishing that the author, or director Bill Rauch, was angrier, and that the play was responding to the political and social realities of 2003 rather than of 2001.

This would not be a problem worth mentioning had Loomer penned a mere domestic comedy. But the author of The Waiting Room and Expecting Isabel obviously has more on her mind. As in her earlier stage works, Loomer again chooses a thematic arena of power and privilege for her play to dance in, and that arena has changed dramatically in the past two years. Maybe this is why Living Out, so carefully measured and balanced and polite, feels slightly out of touch in this era of the Patriot Act, which — with its attendant fears of foreigners and civil rights — is none of those things.

True, one character, a Westside matron, inserts a minicam inside a teddy bear to spy on the nanny she's just hired, and that may be the play's truest sign of the times. But the teddy's in the trash before intermission, and trust re-asserts itself. The play's point of view is like that of a professor in tweeds who hasn't yet noticed that his foreign students are being hauled away by the INS, while the others are having their phones and computers tapped.

Living Out takes three nannies (two caricatures and one character) and their respective employers (also two caricatures and one character) who are collectively like poppy seeds in Loomer's dough. She then rolls the stuff through several scenes into a kind of satirical montage of SoCal living, with amusing yet benign quips about the San Fernando Valley, Trader Joe's and Wild Oats. For nutrition, the play homes in on the two actual characters — nanny Ana (a nuanced and heroic performance by Zilah Mendoza), from El Salvador, and her steely employer, entertainment lawyer Nancy (Amy Aquino) — living in Santa Monica. Nancy has an infant in need of care and a husband, also in need of care, named Richard (Daniel Hugh Kelly). Actually, Richard and Nancy are both lawyers — though, being a public defender and Nice Guy with considerably less earning power than his wife, Richard attempts to live up to the principles of his youth at the cost of some strain in their marriage.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, Ana has an infant of her own, an older son in San Salvador (the separation is causing her profound distress), and a husband named Bobby (Carlos Gomez), who works odd jobs and resents that his wife should have to work at all. Bobby comes fully equipped with a Latino dashboard and a machismo transmission that kicks into jealousy overdrive whenever he gets up enough speed.

These are people who seem created not so much for who they are, but for the way they stand in socio-geographic and temperamental counterpoint. Bobby and Richard, each charming in his own way, are as different from each other as are Central and North America; yet they're brothers, of a sort, bonded by their respective marital discord. Ditto Ana and Nancy, each working overtime into oblivion.

In fact, the drama settles upon the commentary that parents of all stripes should be spending less time working for others and more time rearing their own children. (A line to that effect got a round of applause on press night.) What the play doesn't say is that if everybody cared for their families the way they care about their jobs, the economy would be even shakier than it is right now. Members of the English aristocracy never reared their own young — they hardly saw them, having a global empire to manage. The emotional cost of our American empire lies in the belly of Living Out, though you'd need a trawler to fish that idea from the production's depths.

Nancy meets a pair of moneyed peers in the park — imperious, solipsistic Wallace (Kate A. Mulligan) and kindly, daffy Linda (Elizabeth Ruscio) — and thus, the play dutifully provides a good witch to counterbalance the wicked one, lest it be charged with the crime of having an attitude. The symmetry doesn't end there: Control freak Wallace loses some control over the nanny she's hired — cocky Zoila (Diane Rodriguez) — while Linda has a nanny (Maricela Ochoa) who is stultifyingly devoted to her employer. And so, Living Out applies the precision of a Swiss watch to the art of yin and yang. I wish it also had an attitude.

THE TERM "BLACK COMEDY," NO LONGER much in circulation, referred to a kind of scathing, grotesque humor. If we're to apply that rainbow standard, Rauch's production of Living Out is a maroon comedy — on the way to being dark, but much more cuddly. It's also something of a marooned comedy — marooned by the times. It rattles on about little lies between husbands and wives, between employers and employees, and the way those small deceits interconnect and trickle up. The house is on fire, yet this comedy keeps scratching its head over what to do about a leak under the sink.

It invites us to laugh at the folly of our world, until the arrival of a sudden death that's designed to leave us shocked by our vulnerability to being emotionally blind-sided. Unfortunately, one can track the surprise ending traveling up the Harbor Freeway a good 20 minutes before it actually shows up on the Taper stage.

John Guare's 1970 The House of Blue Leaves is a very angry play that successfully employs the same whammy effect that Living Out — to Loomer's enormous credit — tries for. Guare's comedy careens into a farce involving berserk nuns scurrying down a Brooklyn fire escape during a papal visit, a GI who's AWOL and a local zookeeper-songwriter who plunks out mediocre ditties while dreaming of making it in Hollywood. When this otherwise amiable zookeeper strangles his nutty wife near play's end because, he believes, she's holding him back, the characters' delusions collide with the world's horrors.

In this way, Guare knocks on expressionism's door. Loomer might well have imagined herself on the same porch. Her cartoons of Wallace and Linda, for instance, have the same zany, jagged edges as Guare's insane nuns. Which makes you wonder how Rauch could have Kate Mulligan — who we've seen on the stage of the Actors' Gang virtually frothing at the mouth with her eyes boggled — playing Wallace like a generic villain on the Women's Channel; or, for Linda, having a brilliant comedian like Elizabeth Ruscio, in Candice Cain's florid costumes, resembling a bewildered bag lady looking for a Seinfeld audition.

The result is much like watching commercial TV, with its eagerness to entertain mangled with a fear of offending — even though the world it purports to represent grows more offensive every day.

If Loomer's play has a shadow, Rauch's production is certainly afraid of it. Around Christopher Acebo's scenic backdrop of a Thomas Brothers' L.A. map, a revolving set shuttles furniture and all the characters smoothly into place — a sleek effect that's too mechanistic to serve whatever indignation the play may possess. It's as though it never occurs to this production that only coddled people are carried to where they're going; struggling people have to walk there.

LIVING OUT | By LISA LOOMER | At the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through March 9


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