The sound cue tells all: Nancy and Richard go through their pre-work routines as those irritatingly cheery major fourths of the Morning Edition theme song chirp from the radio and the voice of Bob Edwards exults about an all-time-great slide guitarist. Nothing like NPR to sum up the contradictions of liberalism. This clever aural signal is one of many pointed gestures with which Lisa Loomer creates a complete comic world in Living Out.
Nancy and Richard have just moved to a swanky section of Santa Monica and had their first baby. Nancy (Kathryn Meisle) is returning to work as an entertainment lawyer. Richard (Joseph Urla) is a public defender who can’t quite hide his smugness about “working for the people”—or keep up with the mortgage payments. When they hire Ana (Zilah Mendoza), an undocumented Salvadoran, as their child’s nanny, their values are tested—just enough, at least, for a light comedy. In one typically hilarious scene, Richard has a fit of moral repugnance when he finds a “nanny-cam”—a surveillance camera embedded in a teddy bear—that Nancy has planted in the crib. “Aren’t you a member of the ACLU?” he yells at her, stuffing the toy animal into the microwave.
What complicates Living Out and tries to yank it away from sitcom conventions is that Ana’s struggle—she’s trying to get immigration papers and to bring her elder son from El Salvador while caring for her younger child in Los Angeles—is as central as Nancy’s. Indeed, Loomer and director Jo Bonney establish neat parallels between them. They utter the same phrases in arguments with their respective husbands and give their bosses the same fake excuses. In simultaneous scenes they occupy the same spaces, perch on the same pieces of furniture. But, as the play powerfully shows, the privileges Nancy enjoys as a white professional and citizen leave the women in separate political, and, therefore, emotional, spheres.
Two more pairs of characters expand that gulf: A couple of non-working moms (who interview Ana for the job of nanny in the funny opening scenes) meet periodically in the neighborhood park; so do the two Latinas who work for them. Amid discussion of yoga class and designer diaper bags, the moms compare notes on “the help.” The nannies sharpen the satire with their comments on their bosses: One, who feeds doughnuts to the baby in her care despite her employer’s ban on sugar, denounces tofu as “that white thing that looks like someone ate it already.”
Though the play takes a contrived tragic turn toward the end, it addresses urgent issues in a sympathetic and engaging way. When one of the nannies remarks that if immigrant workers went on strike “the Americanos be driving around in their dirty clothes starving,” the line gets a huge if anxious laugh of recognition. One you won’t quite get from Morning Edition.