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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Nickel and Dimed
by Laura Hitchcock

You'll never eat lunch in a restaurant again or sleep in a hotel room with the same degree of comfort you enjoyed before seeing this in-your-face docudrama dramatized by Joan Holden from Barbara Ehrenreich's non-fiction best-seller, Nickel and Dimed. Challenged by her editor to live on minimum wage jobs researching this book, Barbara, whose day job name becomes Barb, works in Florida as a waitress/hotel maid, in Maine as part of a housecleaning crew weekdays and a nursing home aide week-ends and in Minnesota as a clerk at the flagrantly name-disguised Mallmart. She also tries to find a place within her means to live. Working two jobs is the norm and the roof over her head is often a shelter in more senses than one, even in such surprisingly Middle American states as Minnesota.

Joan Holden's roots as principal playwright for the radical San Francisco Mime Troupe serve her well in infusing the piece with commedia del arte techniques and the desperate urgency that comes from making, not earning, a living The Mime Troupe's screaming rage-fueled humor is absent here but director Bartlett Sher has found something better.

Much is written about playwrights to watch. Here's a director to watch. Importing his production with the original cast from Seattle's Intiman Theatre where it premiered, Sher never loses sight of the vitality and need for laughter that leaven even the most penniless lives. The humor is in the dialogue that Ehrenreich and Holden found, but the staging is uniquely Sher. He carves out several distinct characterizations from each cast member and expresses the joy of being alive, even when it's the only joy these people have, by having them dance.

The Prologue takes place in a restaurant on Barb's first day of work. The pace, the contradicting demands and reversals of rude customers, the domineering manager, the colleagues who cheat each other are Barb's introduction to her new status in life.

Although the piece, which is reminiscent of Studs Terkel's Working, could be trimmed and some of the bathroom humor is as used as the revolting condom Barb peels off her glove, most of it is riveting. We learn that non-corporations are best to work for and that when a business has to trim costs, labor (this means you) is the flexible area. We learn the difference between what Ted, the housecleaning service owner, charges and what the workers actually get and how they accept it because they can't afford the time to look for another job which wouldn't be any better. We learn what it's like to have no benefits when you're pregnant and how it feels not to be sure who's taking care of your pre-schoolers while you scrub floors to cough up the $50 a week to pay her.

In an interactive moment, the actors take a poll of what the audience members pay their help and how many of them have done that kind of work. Barb, in her writer persona as Barbara, says she's never had cleaning help because she doesn't want to have that kind of releationship with another person. On the fair side, another actress screams that when she works hard all week, she wants to spend her spare time with her children, not housecleaning.

Except for the redoubtable Sharon Lockwood as the determined Barbara, whose outraged discoveries range from the limits of sisterhood to the depths of insecurity, the six-member ensemble covers a variety of roles.

The exceptional Cynthia Jones portrays a range of personalities: from a tyrannical restaurant manager to a simple but kind-hearted Born-Again Mallmart sales associate to the arthritic old hotel housecleaner who closes the show with the delighted report of her incredibly demanding live-in job cooking, cleaning and caring for an old lady with I got my own room with a TV, I got it MADE!

Cristine McMurdo-Wallis plays a senior waitress who changes live-in boyfriends as casually as she serves blue plate specials and an old housecleaner who knows her job stinks but knows anything else she could get would be just as bad. Olga Sanchez projects the desperation of a working mother with sub-standard child care. Kristin Flanders ranges with delicate skill from the glamorous restaurant hostess to the compulsive pregnant housecleaning team leader. Jason Cottle plays all the men from Barbara's editor to the slimy Ted. Except for the busboy who wants to learn English, none of the men are nice. Barbara's eye is askew here, but Jason Cottle's isn't..

John Arnone's set with its harsh colors and revolving steel racks projects the bleak lack of nuances in a nickel and dime world. Mary Louise Geiger's lighting design doesn't spare a thing. Costume designer Rose Pederson knows the language of clothes. When she moves Barb from her straight-from-the-street togs into Barbara's black pant suit, I'm reminded of a panel of women film executives all wearing black pant suits except for the star of their film, Erin Brockovich, who stood out in a mini-skirt and four-inch heels.

Perhaps the most devastating thing Barbara Ehrenreich discovered was how poverty made her grovel and corroded her spirit. In the end, Barb could become Barbara again. In the real world, her friends are not so lucky.

This production should play New York and everyplace else, including Minnesota and Capitol Hill, Washington, DC.

By Joan Holden from Barbara Ehrenreich's book
Director: Bartlett Sher
Cast: Jason Cottle (Editor, George, Ted, Pete, Howard), Kristin Flanders (Joan, Holly, Budgie), Cynthia Jones (Nita, Carlie Melissa), Sharon Lockwood (Barbara), Cristine McMurdo-Wallis (Gail, Marge, Winn Dixie Mgr), Olga Sanchez (Hector, Maddy, Kimberly)
Sound Design: Jon Gottlieb
Set Design: John Arnone
Costume Design: Rose Pederson
Lighting Design: Mary Louise Geiger
Running Time: Two hours, twenty minutes. One intermission
Mark Taper Forum, Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles. Phone: (213) 628-2772. Sept 8-Oct 27, 2002
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on Sept. 18.
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