At a time when our deflating economy makes the plight of the working poor more immediate than ever, "Nickel and Dimed: On (not) Getting By in America" should be powerful and poignant. This world premiere production, commissioned by Intiman, is an adaptation by Joan Holden of the best-selling non-fiction book by Barbara Ehrenreich. While it effectively assays the reality of trying to live on entry-level incomes, and the insights gained by the author during her experience of traveling in the land of the underpaid, it does not really become drama. In spite of liberal invention by the playwright, it retains the tone of an essay, rather than the dynamic of a play. Beyond that, it takes a rich and complex topic, and both theatrically and thematically, gives it a shallow and rather unsatisfying presentation. We see and hear these painful, sometimes funny, frequently demeaning employments, but we don't really feel them.
Part of the problem is the artificial circumstance of the writer/narrator, Barbara, well played by Sharon Lockwood. Barbara initiates her safari with a Visa card in her pocket, and a determination that homelessness will NOT be an option. She spends a month at each of her occupations (sometimes more than one at a time), and experiences life as a waitress, a house cleaner, a floor-person at Wal-Mart and a conditional member of the tax-paying underclass. While her insights and compassion are genuine, one is always aware that this high-wire act is being done with a net. Barbara has talents, resources and security - precisely the elements that are lacking in the lives of those she examines. The fact that her situations are temporary and voluntary changes the essence of everything that happens. Furthermore, because of the time limitation we never really learn enough about the patterns and textures of the individual lives, the ways in which years and choices and consequences blend into the foreground and background of financial constraint. In short, she is a tourist, and while she looks deeply into the new landscape, she doesn't really live there, and those who do never really become a part of her, or of us. Most importantly, the ways in which she changes are essentially intellectual. We don't see enough of how these individuals bring her to a deeper understanding of the human condition of constricted opportunity, rather than just an appreciation of the economics. Director Bartlett Sher has brought a great deal of humor to the production, and while it is clever and diverting, it tends to undermine some of the seriousness of the issue. There's too much room to stretch and move and breath in what is really a financially claustrophobic existence.
In the play's best scene, Barbara "comes out" as a journalist and tries to organize fellow workers to improve their employment situation, only to find out that her help is both mis-directed and unwanted. There are ramifications and conflicts of interest far deeper and more tangled than the simple issues of pay rates and benefits. It's the play's truest scene not only because it is so much more emotionally rich than anything else, but because it allows everyone, including the author, to act out of their authentic rather than enacted reality. It's real and complex and conflicted in ways that make much of the rest of the play seem superficial and schematic.
Director Bartlett Sher does an inventive and admirable job with this flawed material, keeping the pace lively and engaging, and balancing a competent and interesting cast. During the second act, the cast breaks the fourth wall and begins a dialogue with the audience about their own relationships to "hired help" and what responsibility we all have for those we engage. It didn't fully work, but it did underscore how much more effective the play might have been with a bit more imagination in the dramatic technique. As it was, we had a pretty straight-ahead presentation of successive jobs that played like a series of skits, alternating serious and silly business, and characters who seemed to stand for various components of a social issue, rather than existing as complete characters. Fortunately, perfectly cast actors like Cristine McMurdo-Wallis brought the dimension of fully realized acting to only partly realized characters. The amazingly versatile Kristen Flanders made her roles all feel as familiar and common as a cup of diner coffee. Jason Cottle gave imaginative variety to a series of men who, unfortunately, were all clichÈs of male insensitivity and inadequacy.
The idea of social conscience, that we all have some responsibility for the quality of life of all the members of our culture, has been sadly lacking during the boom times of the 1980's and 1990's. Now many have found their fortunes decimated and the prospect of real need much, much closer. They say most Americans are only about two month's income away from homelessness. A minimum wage job is a form of sustainable despair without any real hope of even the most modest degree of security. It is a time when we need to be looking at and addressing questions of fairness, need and opportunity. It deserves a probing, moral and fully dimensional portrait. This play isn't it.
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