The plight of working mothers is explored from two pointedly contrasting perspectives in this thought-provoking new comedy by Lisa Loomer. On the surface ripely satirical, but at heart sympathetic, Loomer’s play is particularly notable for its sensitive attention to a sector of the American workforce that is rarely examined in cultural contexts: the thousands of immigrant women from Latin America who make a living by taking care of other women’s children.
Zilah Mendoza, an actress making a noteworthy New York debut after starring in this play’s world premiere at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum, plays a young mother reluctantly entering the nanny trade. She’s got a son growing up with his great-grandmother back home in El Salvador, and she desperately needs the money to bring him north. Neither she nor her husband, Bobby (Gary Perez), has papers, and he works only intermittently — although he still makes huffy remarks about Ana neglecting their own child, the 6-year-old Santiago, to tend someone else’s.
In the play’s early scenes, Loomer gleefully savages Ana’s potential employers, and also illustrates the cruel bind Ana finds herself in. Interviewing with a pair of patronizing women from L.A.’s tony Westside (“Good God, everyone is from El Salvador these days! What happened to all the Mexicans?”), Ana discovers that while her employers expect her to devote herself unstintingly to their children — squiring one to ballet, putting the other down for a nap, leaving time for some “light cleaning” — her own motherhood is considered an absolute deal-breaker. When Ana quietly mentions that she needs to be off by 6 to pick up her little boy, the interviews tend to end abruptly. “I’m sorry, Ana, I need someone who can make my kids a priority,” says one cold-blooded mom, with an embarrassed smile.
And so Ana is forced, for the purpose of finding work, to banish her second son to El Salvador — only in theory, of course. She tells another prospective employer, entertainment lawyer Nancy Robin (Kathryn Meisle), that both her kids are living with their great-grandmother, and is quickly hired. Nancy, who is itching to get back to work, must contend with her own conflicted feelings about giving up a child to the daily care of another woman. But she, too, has an economic incentive, even if it is hardly as forceful as Ana’s. Her husband, Richard (Joseph Urla), makes a modest salary as a public defender, and their new home carries a demanding mortgage.
As the play proceeds, Loomer gently underscores the painful inequities in the increasingly friendly relationship between “caregiver,” as the liberal Nancy prefers to call her, and employer. Both Ana and Nancy must deal with discontented husbands unsettled by the encroaching demands of their careers, but it is always clear that Ana is making the more painful sacrifices; her dependence on her employer becomes more binding when Nancy offers to help Ana and her husband in their quest for citizenship. Loomer also lampoons Nancy’s stereotypical assumptions about Ana (“Was it like that in your village?” “I come from the city.”), and her embarrassment at the gaping divide in their economic fortunes.
The playwright decorates these contrasting, occasionally overlapping scenes set in the women’s respective homes with more overtly satirical segments set in a nearby park. Here Nancy and her fellow nanny-employers compare notes about their caretakers, often revealing a pronounced ignorance beneath their manicured exteriors. One stay-at-home mom who nevertheless employs a full-time nanny (the archly funny Judith Hawking) wonders at how such women are “able to leave (their children) in another country — I mean, could you do that?”
Funnier still are the segments in which the nannies get together for their own gripe sessions, revealing a bitingly humorous perspective on their bleak economic predicament — and the contempt for their coddled employers that simmers beneath their necessarily obsequious exteriors. One disgruntled nanny, played with an amusing prickliness by Labyrinth Theater regular Liza Colon-Zayas, takes petty revenge on her health-obsessed employer by feeding her baby doughnuts.
In its dutiful determination to explore all aspects of the subject, the play occasionally feels like a Sunday-magazine article tricked out for the stage; the drawback of the play’s admirably expansive perspective is a certain superficiality. Its ironies and point-making can be overly blunt, as when Richard laments, “Everyone’s working and paying someone else to take care of their child — it’s insane!”
And it’s a shame Loomer didn’t allow for a more nuanced presentation of all the women onstage. Those on the more comfortable half of the economic divide don’t get a truly sympathetic hearing. Although the appealing Meisle gives a polished, often delicate performance, Nancy is presented in rather harsh comic light in the play’s first half, as she sets traps to test Ana’s trustworthiness.
Jo Bonney’s generally perceptive direction sometimes colludes with the gags Loomer sets up at the expense of the waspish white ladies who lunch. (And the play’s cartoonish tendencies are outlined by Neil Patel’s stylized set, in eye-popping brights.)
But such qualifications tend to get downgraded to mere quibbles whenever Mendoza is center stage, as she is for much of the play. This actress’s beautifully well-observed, quietly intense performance makes up in subtlety and richness of feeling for the play’s occasional lapses in sensitivity.
Ana does not step onstage with a halo — she is maybe a little too susceptible to the glittering allure of American lucre — but she is essentially and simply a good woman, and playing simple goodness may be one of the hardest things to pull off.
As the story darkens, Ana’s ingratiating smile and her lovely, anxious laugh, brought out to smooth over any awkwardness or minor humiliation, begin to take on a haunting, heartbreaking quality. We sense that all Ana’s hard work and good cheer will never be enough to give her the life she seeks — she’ll always be an accessory to someone else’s American dream.