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A Man for All Roles

Jason Cottle takes on a dozen different parts in 'Nickel and Dimed,' at the Mark Taper Forum


When a red-vested waitress named Theresa recently served actor Jason Cottle French fries and lemonade at a Los Angeles Denny's, let the record show: He left a good tip. Cottle plays a dozen different roles in the Mark Taper Forum's current production of "Nickel and Dimed," which is based on Barbara Ehrenreich's first-person account about trying to make ends meet on a minimum wage.

In the opening scene, Cottle plays a Czech busboy at "Jerry's," a chain restaurant where staffers work feverishly and still come up short at the end of the day.

"I hadn't heard of the book," says Cottle, "but I read it before my audition and was blown away. It's such a brutal view of these people who get knocked down and knocked again. There's millions of people who work so hard they're exhausted--and they still don't have money."

In "Nickel and Dimed," Cottle, officially credited as "Ensemble," portrays one woman and all of the male characters. Slipping in and out of accents, attitudes and costumes, he materializes on stage as the eager-to-learn-English dishwasher, a boor from Montana, an erudite New York magazine editor, a man with a hacking cough, a bossy Boston maid-crew supervisor, a rich housewife, a spaced-out nursing home attendant, a middle manager at a Minnesota discount chain, a neck-brace-wearing mall rat and a fast-food-crew supervisor.

"The first time you do this play, you're like, 'I have no idea what I'm doing now, or who I am or where I'm going,' " says Cottle, 31. "That's become easier. What's still hard is that this show is not like 'Hamlet,' where you have a natural progression as one character: Horatio comes in, you're going to see the ghost, I know who killed him, 'Oh my gosh, my mother,' the grave scene, and it keeps building and building. Or with Chekhov, you have the rhythm of his language to carry your through. But in 'Nickel and Dimed,' there's all these different sequences and the rhythm changes each time, so you have to stop and start, stop and start. There's so many of these little scenes, you feel like you never really land on stage."

Cottle says he's developed a kind of shorthand for each role. "I've got a few minutes here or there to try to get into caricature. Ideally, there's some kind of hook that really gets you into the scene. Like when I'm going to play the rich lady, I'll find myself primping and kind of teasing the stagehands while I get ready. Or the Mall-Mart manager, all of a sudden I find myself being a jerk, eyeballing people suspiciously and checking my tie."

As for "Pete," the nursing home attendant whose stream-of-consciousness monologue routinely provokes an ovation, Cottle says, "For me, Pete is this open expression"--he lets his jaw go slack and begins free-associating about table condiments--" 'Oh yeah, there's the creamer over there, I had some cream one time. I know a guy who manufactured cream, yeah, he had, like, a huge building.... ' "

Back to being himself, Cottle says, "Stuff keeps flowing out of him because he's a little bit off, and that's the way he tries to make connections with people."

Costumes in "Nickel and Dimed" efficiently telegraph each character's status to the audience but don't allow for down-to-the-last-detail perfection. "The wardrobe is more a suggestion," Cottle explains. "When I play the rich lady for example, I'm still wearing boxers underneath so that doesn't fit quite right with the character; it doesn't feel like a complete changeover."

Which is OK, Cottle says. "This show is not so much about the character--it's about the story."

As a struggling actor living in Los Angeles, Cottle collected a few minimum-wage memories of his own. He'd grown up in Massachusetts and earned a bachelor of fine arts in theater at UC Santa Barbara. When he moved to Hollywood to pursue show business, Cottle followed an age-old acting tradition and began working at a restaurant.

"There was this place in Santa Monica, where I was a busboy and tended the register and also made coffee drinks," Cottle recalls. "I always felt like 'Alice in Wonderland' where my head is like 90 feet above the ground because I was always drinking the drinks I'd screwed up--I'd be sweating, my heartbeat was 'boom, boom, boom' from drinking these coffee things that I could never master."

Cottle also worked at a Mailboxes Etc. "That was really fun," he says tersely.

Then he began landing small roles in films like "Wag the Dog" and "The Wedding Singer." Since moving to Seattle in 1999, Cottle's facility with accents has generated a steady stream of voice-over work. He's also become a fixture on the local theater scene and recently starred as Hamlet with the Seattle Shakespeare Company.

So by the time Seattle's Intiman Theatre cast him in May in its original production of "Nickel and Dimed," Cottle believed the menial gigs were behind him.

Not exactly.

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