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Arts & Entertainment

Review: 'Nickel & Dimed'

From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 16

By Ben Miles

In the tradition of George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London” and John Howard Griffin’s “Black Like Me,” Barbara Erhenriech’s 2001 book “Nickel and Dimed” is an act of undercover journalism. It is aimed at revealing the ramifications of the 1996 welfare reform act on poverty-level workers in the United States.

Griffin’s hard-hitting insights about the color-line in the southern United States, in “Black Like Me,” made the transition from book to film in 1964; Erhrenriech’s tough treatise on the conditions of the American working class was reconfigured by dramatist Joan Holden into a stage play in 2002, when it also made its debut at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum.

Now, under Richard Kilroy’s hectically controlled direction, Holden’s script and Ehrenreich’s meaningful message get a respectful hearing via a Blue Eyes Productions staging at the intimate Hudson Mainstage Theatre in Hollywood.

When the Ehrenreich’ s middle-aged, middle-class character, Barbara, gets an assignment to explore life at minimum wage, the question becomes, can she or any working adult live on $7 an hour (or less in some cases)?

Working a series of low-wage, low-skill jobs – as a waitress, paid $2.15 hourly (plus tips) at a chain restaurant called Kenny’s; as a maid for a cleaning franchise; and as a retail employee at a mega-chain, referred to as Mall-Mart – Barbara endures the indignities of toilet cleaning, tyrannical managers, and exploitive working conditions (at the retail store, employees are required to clock out, only to continue their labors without compensation; an assistant manager explains to us that it’s no one in particular that’s to blame, “it’s the numbers,” and labor costs are the only adjustable variable).

Unlike her underclass cohorts, Barbara has the fallback position of credit cards and a home and husband in Florida. Still, she is quickly convinced that she will only be able to make ends meet as a low-wage worker if she takes additional jobs, not unusual at this level of employment; many workers, as we see here, have multiple places of employment.

More agitprop than traditional drama, “Nickel and Dimed” is nonetheless an indispensible piece of political theater. The unerring truth revealed in this two-hour plus production is that the underpaid, uninsured bottom-rung workers of our country provide a wholly unacknowledged subsidy to our nation’s economy.

What’s more, we get awful insights into the drudgery and concerns of those struggling to survive the rigors and humiliations of work at the bottom of the social barrel. When an employee injures herself in a work related incident she is loath to report it for fear that she may lose pay and a promotion. Further, most of these miserable employment venues require that prospective workers suffer the indignation of having a pre-employment drug screening of their urine.

“Nickel and Dimed” – with many scene changes, props and characters – is a difficult play to stage. Nevertheless, Kilroy’s cast and crew (Kilroy is also credited with the complicated but effective set design) are dedicated to and succeed in conveying Ehrenreich’s socially conscious sentiment.

Zachary Barton embodies the role of Barbara with intelligence and heartfelt commitment. Barton’s earthy demeanor and courageous frankness make her character admirable and believable.

But there are a half-dozen other performers who also populate the stage, each incarnating various personas. Kudos to Kathleen Ingle, Johnnie Torres, Carmen Lezeth Suarez, Matthew Wrather, Jackie Joniec, and Veronica Alicino for their credible characterizations.

“Nickel and Dimed” is a timely and empathetic theatrical project (maybe more so now than a decade ago) that deserves to be seen by anyone concerned about the growing gap between the have and have nots and by those who appreciate socially aware theater. It’s no wonder that the subtitle of Ehrenreich’s book is “On (Not) Getting By in America.”

“Nickel and Dimed” continues at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre through August 25. The Hudson Mainstage is located at 6539 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles. Evening performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Matinees are Sundays at 3 p.m. For reservations, call (323) 960-5770.