The set may be primarily pastels and sunny California colors well befitting the show's Los Angeles setting, but Living Out as a play is far less sunny. While there's certainly a great deal of comedy present in Lisa Loomer's new show at Second Stage, (which premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles), it's first and foremost a blistering indictment of modern parenting.
Loomer's most impressive achievement is her depiction of the two sides of the story, illustrating their inherent similarities well enough to render them essentially equivalent. She pulls no punches in defining both Nancy and Richard Robin (Kathryn Meisle and Joseph Urla), American power lawyers, and Ana and Bobby Hernandez (Zilah Mendoza and Gary Perez), hard-working illegal immigrants from El Salvador, as two sets of parents willing to sacrifice just about everything to get ahead.
They've all sold their souls (and effectively their children) to different versions of the American Dream, basically proving they have very little time left for parenting; that's the source of most of the show's understated pathos. But Loomer is equally concerned with the necessity of trust to human relationships of all kinds, and it's that breakdown of faith in others - sometimes justified, sometimes not - that sets the story on its inexorably tragic course.
While each couple has squabblings between them - Nancy and Richard about their new mortgage and Nancy's desire to return to work, Ana and Bobby about Ana's increasing workload and Bobby's dragging his feet at obtaining legal citizenship - the interactions between the families are even more severe. Nancy, wracked with guilt over hiring someone she hardly knew, feels she must spy on Ana with a hidden camera and test her work ethic while Ana must maintain, through an ever-growing web of deception, her early lie that both her sons are in El Salvador when, in reality, one lives with her and Bobby in L.A.
Loomer's writing is bright and sharp, and she handles the characters' gradually escalating deceit and mistrust with as much care as she juggles the numerous issues on which the story is built. Jo Bonney's direction nicely captures the writing's breezy, deceptively carefree quality and cleverly points up the interplay of the two families; a number of people in different locations often share the stage and the changes in focus are simply but creatively handled. Neil Patel's set, replete with vast vistas of solid orange and suggestive oceanside walks, and David Weiner's summer-tinged lighting, are just what's needed.
So are the performances, with Meisle and Mendoza particularly virtuosic as driven, pained mothers who want the best for their children, but don't really know how to give it to them. The fathers are often secondary at best, trapped in very much a woman's world, but Urla and Perez give their characters realistic life within their boundaries of helplessness. The remaining performers reflect the central struggle of truthfulness and class interaction with a dose of good, edgy humor - Liza Colón-Zayas and Maria Elena Ramirez are Ana's counterparts, and Judith Hawking and Kelly Coffield Park are Meisle's. Like the central players, they all stand out.
The strength of Loomer's writing, even of the supporting characters, no doubt makes that easier than it might otherwise be. Loomer has great affection for all her characters, but is unwilling to let anyone off the hook; the story she tells is one with no real heroes. That's one source for her only significant dramatic misstep - making the first act a bit too strong. Her characters complete a deal of near-Faustian proportions in the act's final moments, but that development fits the show's plot and character so snugly, it almost feels like a legitimate ending. It then takes the second act a while to find its stride and purpose.
But once Living Out gets back on track, it doesn't get derailed again. It's a strong, entertaining show, but also a difficult one, unafraid of challenging pre-conceived notions of what parents need - and what they think they need - for their children to survive in the world.
Second Stage Theatre