By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Two women exist on strangely parallel planes in Lisa Loomer's play Living Out, now onstage in an exciting and powerfully acted regional premiere at Addison's WaterTower Theatre. They are both working mothers with young children. Both have headstrong husbands who'd prefer that their wives stay home to be full-time mommies. But finances being tight, both couples depend on double incomes, so it's up to the women to find in-home child-care help.
For entertainment attorney Nancy Robin (played by the always superb Lydia Mackay), that means hiring a nanny double-quick. Parents of a newborn, Nancy and her lesser-paid public defender hubby, Richard (Ian Leson), recently have nested in an ugly but overpriced house on a leafy avenue in Santa Monica, the beachside community on the "safer" west side of Los Angeles. It's a place where good nannies, with or without green cards, are in constant demand. "Good God, everyone is from El Salvador," sniffs another upscale mother, interviewing a prospect. "What happened to all of the Mexicans?"
The Robins snap up Salvadoran Ana Hernandez (Gigi Cervantes in a performance that thrills with its urgent reality). As undocumented workers, Ana, an experienced baby-minder, and her often-unemployed husband, Bobby (Marco Rodriguez), are so strapped they've left one of their two sons back in El Salvador to be raised by an abuela. Their younger son, Santiago, lives with them in a crowded apartment in East L.A., site of high crime and asthma-inducing air.
To get the $10-an-hour job, Ana lies to Nancy and says both of her children live in her home country. It's the first of many untruths characters must tell each other to maintain their status as moms with jobs. Nancy agrees not to tip Richard to Ana's illegal status. Ana promises Richard she won't reveal that their baby started to crawl while Nancy was out of town. Ana uses the "my mother is sick" excuse when a school holiday means staying home with her own boy. Nancy dittos that one when she calls her law firm to get out of a meeting. Despite their social and economic differences, both women struggle to cope with similar dilemmas.
Living Out (the title refers to the sleep-in or out status of hired help) may remind some of last year's James L. Brooks movie, Spanglish. But on so many levels, it's so much better. Loomer's writing, first and foremost, is smarter and funnier. She really understands these women, and she knows when to go for a laugh and when to let emotion tip ever so slightly toward the tragic. She also structures the play around a clever device, playing out dual scenes between the two households. Ana and Bobby get into a shouting match about how much overtime she's putting in with the Robins. Richard harps at Nancy about her long stretches away on business. Sometimes the husbands speak the same lines simultaneously. Rich or poor, Loomer says, men don't understand the guilt a working mother suffers, or the depths of her exhaustion after bringing home the bacon and frying it up in the pan.
Scenic designer Randel Wright, working from the playwright's direction about how the set should look, has created a generic space that allows both couples to share the same living quarters. In alternating scenes, the sparsely decorated kitchen and living room belong first to Nancy and Richard, then to Ana and Bobby. Director Rene Moreno moves them in and out seamlessly, using graceful rhythms that don't rush the transitions.
One level above the house/apartment sits an abstractly rendered city park where giant statues symbolizing religion and money flank a simple bench. Here, more parallel scenes unfold. First it's the neighborhood's impossibly snotty moms (Heather Henry and Cara Statham Serber) gossiping about their "caregivers" and sharing tips for how to catch them stealing (the "nanny cam" and a few scattered greenbacks are one trick to test honesty). Later, the Latino nannies (Dolores Godinez and Erika Bazán) swap stories about their employers, including intimate details of underwear drawers and where the mommy who forbids sugar in the house secretly stashes her candy bars.
Undoubtedly some in the audience will identify with the well-off parents, others with the couple always one medical emergency away from losing it all. Living Out is about many things, but the social messages aren't overbearing. Loomer is subtler than that, leaving more unsaid than overstated. That's what makes her play and the people in it memorable and profound.
The title character, an idiotic "chalk inspector" named Rick Steadman (Chris Dover), is an old army buddy of a sad-sack Indiana architect named Willum (Shane Beeson). When Rick blunders unexpectedly into Willum's surprise birthday party, he becomes the dork who came to dinner. He stays. And stays. And stays. Until Willum, girlfriend Tansy (Christine Bush) and their drama critic pal Axel (Scott A. Eckert) can't stand him another minute.
But Rick doesn't take "Go!" for an answer. He beds down on the couch and becomes Willum's personal Amityville horror. When Willum's stuffy boss (Michael Roe) comes for dinner one night with repressed wife (Angela Wilson) and rowdy son (Bert Merino) in tow, Rick kicks it up a notch, getting them all involved in a nonsensical game called "Shoes and Socks."
And on it goes right up to a goofy shaggy dog of an ending that's like something out of Sleuth. Except in Terre Haute. With horn rims.
No, it's not art, but it's entertaining as all get-out (and Pocket's little kitchen makes a decent plate of nachos to munch during the show). Chris Dover, who bears a strong resemblance to the late Frank Gorshin, attacks his nerd persona with an arsenal of god-awful gestures, snorts and pratfalls that are equally hilarious and cringe-inducing. All the actors throw themselves into the wackiness with willing abandon, particularly young Merino as Thor. He's one funny little monster.
Shue, who found success with The Nerd and The Foreigner in the early 1980s, died in a plane crash in 1985 at the age of 39. His pair of comedies are mainstays of regional and community theaters. The Foreigner was revived on Broadway last season starring Matthew Broderick.
The Nerd shows off Shue's ability to send up the plain vanilla tastes of Midwesterners by layering reference upon reference. There's a fat man who enters drenched (for reasons too silly to get into) in large-curd cottage cheese. Characters joke about folk dancing with pork. And the nattering nerd himself professes his devotion to the bafflingly generic cartoon strip "Nancy." Come on, you have to love any playwright who recognizes the genius of Ernie Bushmiller.