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Theater Review

At the Taper, a Sharp Look at How the Working Poor Live

September 20, 2002|SEAN MITCHELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In its current offering, "Nickel and Dimed," the Mark Taper Forum has done a daring thing: It has put a play on its main stage that attacks the economic privilege of 90% of the people who will see it.

The adaptation, by Joan Holden, of social critic Barbara Ehrenreich's book about the working poor is a heady evening, all right, steering us at Wal-Mart-aisle level through the physical hardship, corporate peonage, flophouse accommodations and other indignities of life at minimum wage while suggesting that we, the members of the middle class who have escaped such horrors, remain complicit in the suffering of these 32 million other Americans being described on stage.

Based on Ehrenreich's tour of duty as a waitress, maid, nursing home worker and Wal-Mart clerk, trolling for clues to survival at the bottom of our famously prosperous nation, "Nickel and Dimed" comes to the stage with Ehrenreich herself (played by Sharon Lockwood) as the main character, narrating the plucky journalistic adventure that took her from Florida to Maine to Minnesota. A remarkably versatile ensemble of five actors plays multiple parts, bringing to life the co-workers and other folks she met along the way.

Some will no doubt see "Nickel and Dimed" as merely a hair shirt of liberal guilt tailor-made for the high-minded, SUV-driving Music Center crowd. But Ehrenreich's irrepressible sense of humor, admirably translated by Holden from page to stage, softens the agitprop by taking nonpolitical pleasure in a wide range of human behavior on view, from a nursing home cook who brags he's "a big player in tech" to a clueless clothing clerk who has dropped all her problems in the lap of Jesus. Which is not to say that by the end the play has not become a roar of protest that brings to mind antecedents like Clifford Odets' "Waiting for Lefty," John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" and the farm worker-inspired actos of Luis Valdez.

This is very much theater as an address, and Holden, the former company playwright of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, closely follows the form of the book, asking the Ehrenreich character to step outside the unfolding scenes of waitressing hell and nursing home slobber and speak to us as author to audience. If this is not drama of the highest order, neither is it ever dull, staged with imagination by director Bartlett Sher and propelled by the quality of Ehrenreich's inquiry into how the other half (or the other third, to be precise) lives.

Like most adaptations for the stage or screen, this one can't convey all the subtlety of Ehrenreich's top-drawer prose. But it's surprisingly successful in what it does convey, and in some cases the actors' characterizations add humor or insight.

Beginning with her slight resemblance to the author, Lockwood, a Bay Area actress, is well suited to the main role and brings to bear a warm-voiced, unglamorous charm that seems to build as the evening goes on. It's a daunting part that requires her to offset the occasional shrillness of Ehrenreich's argument with enough humor and compassion that we like her even while she is making us uncomfortable.

There is a point in the book when Ehrenreich, during her stint working for a maid service in Maine, confesses piously that she has never in her life paid anyone to clean her house "because this is just not the kind of relationship I want to have with another human being." Oh, please, the reader is likely to say. And when this same episode is revisited on stage, that is exactly what the other actors do say, surprisingly, in one of two instances in which the play not only breaks the fourth wall, but also brings up the house lights and hurls the actors into our faces, so to speak, leading to a brief discussion of what everybody in the audience pays their maids.

Although the play begins in the pandemonium of Barbara's first day in a Denny's-style restaurant, it flashes back to the story's true beginnings, when an editor at Harper's magazine challenged her to write a first-person account of an uneducated working woman's fate since the cutbacks in welfare. Ehrenreich sets herself a strict budget and tries in vain to meet it. Watching her episodic struggles, we learn a lot about life in the trenches, and Lockwood makes us feel that it's scary, even to someone just visiting with a laptop in the trunk of her car and the knowledge that in a few months she can go back to the security of a house, health insurance and meals that consist of more than canned ham and Doritos.

We watch the strain on her face as she checks her doctoral credentials at the door and endures repeated "personality" tests administered by odious low-level assistant managers who are themselves corporate lackeys. She puts up with social agency bureaucrats while trying to find temporary quarters when no affordable apartments are available. She watches a young pregnant colleague at the maid service refuse to stop working, out of fear she'll be replaced, even after she collapses with an injury.

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