Back and forth we bounce in Gala Hispanic Theatre’s juicily rendered “Living Out,” from the point of view of the fussy, affluent parents to that of the Latina women they hire to mind their children. Ana (Belén Oyola-Rebaza), an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, takes a job caring for the infant daughter of Santa Monica lawyers Nancy (Megan Behm) and Richard (Kyle McGruther), and off this enjoyable seriocomedy is set, on a course of confused cultural cues and clashing social values.
Some of the territory traversed by playwright Lisa Loomer is of familiar satirical topography, as the moms of Nancy’s neighborhood gather to reflect on the benefits of yoga and the shortcomings of the help, and the babysitters assemble to compare notes on the craze for organic everything and the other bizarre folkways of their employers. Indeed, the last time I saw the play, at Round House Theatre in 2004, the work’s tidy parallel universes came across to me as overly formulaic.
But this time, in Gala’s space in Columbia Heights, on Giorgos Tsappas’s set of Southern California domiciles, the warmth of Loomer’s characters is much more apparent. Director Abel López oversees the proceedings with such a lively and compassionate eye that the pieces of “Living Out” end up clicking more satisfyingly into place. This effort is aided greatly by Oyola-Rebaza and Behm, who not only create persuasively sympathetic characters but also forge an authentic-seeming relationship infused with the guilt, insecurity and resentment that can be summoned when money, work and children are all involved.
From Oyola-Rebaza especially, López elicits the kind of rich portrayal that invites an audience to see the underlying complexity of an outwardly ordinary arrangement. Ana, a dental student forced to flee a war of insurgency in El Salvador, settles in Los Angeles with her husband, Bobby (Peter Pereyra), a construction worker who also lacks his green card. In an amusing opening series of vignettes, we watch as Ana suffers through interviews with a spoiled control freak (the terrific Lisa Hodsoll) and dithering doormat (Amal Saade) before figuring out the right answers to give in her encounter with Behm’s anxious Nancy.
Although “Living Out,” which is performed in English with Spanish surtitles, is less generous to its entitled employers than its struggling caregivers, it doesn’t stack the deck so severely that you can’t feel for the new-parent paranoia of Nancy and Richard (McGruther in a charming, sensitive performance). Ana lies to them about some vital matters, for the sake of assuaging their fears, but also just to keep her job. It’s a charade for which she pays a terrible price; Loomer leaves it to us to decide how much blame to apportion to her, or to Nancy and Richard or to the wider social and economic conditions that compel all of them to less than perfect choices.
The playwright at the same time provides her entertaining take on the cliquish domain of the nannies, who are as quirky and competitive as the women they work for. Zoila (Lorena Sabogal) lives grudgingly in the house of Hodsoll’s Wallace and clandestinely feeds sugar-coated treats to her charge; Sandra (Stefanie Garcia) drains her batteries babysitting the wild-child twins of Saade’s Linda, leaving little in reserve to tend to her own kids. (Like Ana, Sandra commutes to the job — they are, in the caregiving vernacular, “living out.”) Sabogal and Garcia both offer spirited, finely-tuned portrayals.
The play is strong on the incidental absurdities of modern life: every other baby seems to be named “Jackson,” for instance. And it understands the overcompensating practiced by some people uncomfortable with their privileges. Nancy, at one point, apologizes to Ana for using “torture” in reference to straightening her hair, when of course the word might pertain to something far more serious in Ana’s homeland.
Ultimately, though, “Living Out” more resolutely pursues the disturbing than funny consequences of these uneasy domestic alliances. It leaves you with a tally of the compromises made for the sake of kids at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum — and with questions about why the sacrifices on their behalf sometimes come back to hurt them the most.
by Lisa Loomer. Directed by Abel López. Set, Giorgos Tsappas; lighting, Cory Ryan Frank; costumes, Ivania Stack; sound, Brendon Vierra. In English with Spanish surtitles. About two hours and 15 minutes. Tickets, $20-$42. Through May 18 at Gala Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. Visit www.galatheatre.org or call 800-494-8497.