You've heard this story before, haven't you, the one about the employer and the domestic struggling to make sense of their own stressful worlds while groping for an understanding of each other's? In popular entertainment, we've gone from the servants who knew their place ("Upstairs, Downstairs") to the ones who taught us to know ourselves ("Driving Miss Daisy") to the sort who treat us with the utter contempt we so richly deserve ("Will and Grace").
In sum, the topic has been done and done and done, which of course means there is always someone who wants to do it again. Playwright Lisa Loomer takes her turn with her new guilty-yuppie play, "Living Out," debuting in Washington in an extremely proficient production at Round House Theatre. It would be difficult, in fact, to imagine this overly familiar material being served more capably than in Wendy C. Goldberg's vibrant staging, or for there to be actresses better suited to the central roles than Joselin Reyes and Holly Twyford.
At times, "Living Out" feels like two plays. One is a comedy about the wacky rich ladies of Santa Monica and the Central American nannies who hate them. The other is a drama about Ana, a sad-eyed refugee (Reyes) from El Salvador who takes a job watching the infant of Nancy, a Type A entertainment lawyer (Twyford) who's torn between the demands of breast-feeding her daughter and baby-sitting her clients. Guess which play has more juice? As warm and appealing as Reyes's Ana is, and as steely-lively as Twyford makes Nancy, they're stuck in a hackneyed tale, one that might turn up on Lifetime someday as a feature for Rosie Perez and Courteney Cox Arquette.
The comic aspects are consumed by a quartet of terrific actresses who play the sniping, competitive ladies and the sniping, competitive nannies. Chandler Vinton and Susan Lynskey are the pampered moms of Nancy's neighborhood who stay at home but nevertheless require full-time help in the playroom; Socorro Santiago and Elise Santora portray the maternal surrogates who nurse the children along with their own grudges.
A park bench on James Kronzer's ingenious turntable set is occupied by the ladies, who carry fake-fur diaper bags and voice grave doubts about the caregivers' honesty. Later, the babysitters take their turn on the bench to mock their affluent employers for their paranoia about being conned and their aversion to processed sugar. (In one funny bit, Santiago's Zoila takes her orders from the mother by cell phone while slipping her young charge a doughnut.) In these portions of "Living Out," the laughs are frequent and the caricatures broad. All four women are ideally cast, and costume designer Anne M. Kennedy enlivens the cartoon by dressing the rich mothers in what looks like a wardrobe culled from the racks of both Neiman Marcus and FAO Schwarz.
The other scenes of "Living Out" take place in the homes of Nancy and her husband, Richard (David Fendig), and, on the other side of the city, Ana and her husband, Bobby (Michael Ray Escamilla). Here the story plays out along lines you could write in your own head. Nancy's conflicting desires for a career and for motherhood lead to tension in her marriage and bouts of self-doubt. The long hours Ana spends caring for Nancy's child infuriate Bobby and prevent her from being a mother to her own 6-year-old son.
Poor everybody! The most incisive element of the story of Nancy and Ana is Loomer's drawing of the invisible fence that defines the limits between them. Ana must indulge Nancy's lopsided view of their relationship. As is the plight of all in servile roles, Ana must be vigilant about following the rules, no matter how many times the boss says there aren't any. The terrible magnitude of the imbalance, one that Nancy is never able to acknowledge, is revealed in the insensitive way Nancy prevails upon Ana to stay late one evening, a request that will have tragic consequences for Ana:
"Could you do me this one favor," Nancy pleads, "as a friend?"
One of Loomer's points, of course, is that no matter how much Nancy wants to think of herself as fair and decent toward Ana, nothing real passes between them other than cash.
Goldberg conducts her ensemble through the business of "Living Out" with what feels like old-fashioned boulevard comedy know-how; the punch lines land effortlessly. The set is something of a marvel; your eye lingers on the moving pieces of adobe architecture, swinging into place as if fitted by jigsaw. The cast is without a weak link; Fendig and Escamilla are solid in support. But most of all, it is the strength of Reyes's soft-spoken Ana that holds the play together, that allows the disparate pieces of "Living Out" to finally coalesce and seem something whole.
Living Out, by Lisa Loomer. Directed by Wendy C. Goldberg. Set, James Kronzer; costumes, Anne M. Kennedy; lighting, Daniel MacLean Wagner; sound, Ryan Rumery. Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. Through Oct. 10 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or visit