Joan Holden's theatrical presentation of social critic Barbara Ehrenreich's book "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America" is, despite every effort to dramatize the author's self-doubt and mounting desperation, the Barbara Ehrenreich Show.

Joan Holden’s theatrical presentation of social critic Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America” is, despite every effort to dramatize the author’s self-doubt and mounting desperation, the Barbara Ehrenreich Show, in which our top academic media-gal takes us slumming, grieves about it, and then goes on to the NPR circuit and a six-figure payday. This is no slam on Ehrenreich. She did what she set out to do, wrote an important work, and has never failed to give credit to the people who inspired and affected it.

Some inner currents within “Nickel and Dimed” eventually poison the production’s aim. Part of it has to do with agit-prop‘s basic weakness (both Holden and artistic adviser Anna Deavere Smith are veterans of the San Francisco Mime Troupe) in substituting type for character, which always ends up in oversimplification. Similarly, sociological case histories, as we see here, reduce people into categories whose narrowness preclude our engagement with full-blown human beings.

“Nickel and Dimed” as a theater piece is deadened by jokes in the wrong place and the kind of unconsciously smug gloss over the anguish and ache of real experience, where women’s suffering in this case (and what about blue-collar men?) becomes transmuted into the environmental safety of women’s studies and art exhibits, and radical chic becomes another media fashion statement.

Sharon Lockwood plays Barbara, the perky Ph.D. and big-time magazine writer who trades her designer pants suit for waitress, motel maid, housecleaner and supermart floor uniform. Not only does she step out to crunch the numbers for us, as in how do you pay rent, car, food, child care and clothing expenses — forget about health insurance — on $6.50 an hour, but she, like her co-workers, must endure the magpie scrutiny of managerial despots. The working poor, they’re called. Wage slave is the more accurate term.

The humiliating lunacy of the conditions is enough to make audience members sick, and for most of act one the idea is to show the appalling nature of everyday things that are seldom noticed about service people who get everyone through their working days.

That “Nickel and Dimed” doesn’t develop as drama isn’t the worst thing about it. The production tries gamely to confront the house — how many here have cleaning ladies? What do you pay them? In the end, though, nobody in the Taper audience is about to go home to clean their own toilets.

“Nickel and Dimed” asks us for compassion and humorous understanding. It should insist instead on our anger.

There’s never been a set more busily used than John Arnone’s. Every Denny’s and Tiny Naylor’s and DuPar’s has a scrawny waitress like Cristine McMurdo-Wallis’ Gail, dried out from within, with a cigarette-scarred voice and dead hair of a color not seen in the natural world. Cynthia Jones is touching, funny and highly versatile in a number of roles — all the actors except Lockwood play multiple parts, and Lockwood’s performance is honest and straightforward. Most of the men come off as arrogant, obnoxious and self-serving, but Jason Cottle has a distinct take on each of them. And Bartlett Sher’s fine direction is alert to the rhythms of the workplace.

Nickel and Dimed

Mark Taper Forum; 752 seats; $45

Production

An Intiman Theater premiere production, in association with the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum, of the Joan Holden play, based on Barbara Ehrenreich's book "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America." Directed by Bartlett Sher.

Creative

Sets, John Arnone; sound, Jon Gottlieb; costumes, Rose Pederson; lighting, Mary Louise Geiger; music, Michael McQuilken; stage managers, David S. Franklin and Stacey Roberts. Opened and reviewed Sept. 19, 2002; closes Oct. 27. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

With: Jason Cottle, Kristin Flanders, Cynthia Jones, Sharon Lockwood, Cristine McMurdo-Wallis, Olga Sanchez.
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