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NANNY BOO-BOO TOO MUCH L.A. HUMOR UNDERCUTS 'LIVING OUT'.

Byline: Evan Henerson Theater Critic

THERE ARE nannies and there are ninnies, sometimes occupying the same Santa Monica real estate. In ``Living Out,'' the somewhat topical new comedy by Lisa Loomer, the ninniess dominate the action, at least in the beginning. Then Loomer makes her characters behave like actual human beings, by which time her plotting is predictable.

Meantime, audiences at the Mark Taper Forum get to laugh at a bevy of L.A. references and cliches with a smugness that hasn't been heard since ... well ... since another socially relevant and badly flawed play, Joan Holden's ``Nickel and Dimed,'' hit the Taper last September.

Loomer, the author of ``Expecting Isabel'' and ``The Waiting Room,'' is a smart and witty playwright, but her latest work trolls for cheap laughs when it should be concerned with character and dramatic heft. By evening's end, if I had to listen to one more joke about Wild Oats market or tofu, one more reference to a pileup on Wilshire Boulevard, I swear I would have hurled.

Admittedly, Loomer is a proud and research-conscious Angeleno, but does her work have to be so spoofed L.A.? You paint yourself into a dramatic corner when your first scene is a Salvadoran nanny asking civilization's crassest Westside matron, ``Do jew know Honting-ton Park?'' and having the matron say things like, ``Where did all the Mexicans go?'' Ana the nanny (played by Zilah Mendoza) eventually works her way back from being something out of an ``SNL'' sketch, but until she does, it feels the playwright is largely contemptuous of her characters - rich, poor or otherwise.

The setting, in case I haven't made it clear, is the city of angels. Christopher Acebo's scenic backdrop is an enormous zip code-festooned page out of a Thomas Brothers map, out of which compartments open to reveal a doorway, a fridge or a stereo system. An incomplete black frame squares off the map into a house-shaped cutout - bigger for Santa Monica, smaller for Huntington Park. Scenes in both locales often take place simultaneously.

Illegal nannies and their well-off employers, you see, are actually very much alike. Both worry endlessly about their children and their finances. Both have cliquishly catty support systems. Both know, and hurt from, having to make sacrifices. Both will tell lies in order to make the road a little easier. ``Living Out'' - employer-speak for a nanny who goes home at night - ultimately hinges on a truth not told and its tragic results. Ana gets a job as the Robin family nanny by telling the mother (Amy Aquino) that her two children are in El Salvador. Uh-oh.

The relationship between Ana and Nancy and Richard Robin (Aquino and Daniel Hugh Kelly) moves from suspicion and slight resentment to love, reliance and complete trust. That transition, gradual and without a heavy hand, is the most artful part of Bill Rauch's direction. The Robins are both attorneys - she's an entertainment lawyer, he's an in-the-trenches public defender. Once Ana settles in, they look for ways to make Ana's life easier. A phone call from Nancy enables Ana to advance her citizenship efforts. That means more work for Ana and less time spent with her husband, Bobby (Carlos Gomez), and son.

Aquino's Nancy, like Mendoza's Ana, actually morphs into a believable character, a concerned mom who wants to do the right thing, but has to prioritize. As her free-spirited husband, Kelly utters most of the play's poignant statements (Loomer is big on verbal underlining). He also gets the biggest laugh line, on discovering that his wife has purchased a ``nanny-cam'' to spy on Ana: ``I'm married to Linda Tripp.''

The laughs come easily to Loomer. Plot and structure, less so.

LIVING OUT - Two stars

Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday; through March 9.

Tickets: $31 to $45. Call (213) 628-2772.

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Zilah Mendoza plays a Salvadoran nanny hired by a wealthy Westside family in ``Living Out'' at the Mark Taper Forum.
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Title Annotation:Review; U
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 31, 2003
Words:684
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