Review: ‘Nickel & Dimed’

Something has gone seriously wrong with Joan Holden's play after its apparently well-received premiere last year by Seattle's Intiman Theater (which commissioned it) in association with L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum.

Something has gone seriously wrong with Joan Holden’s play after its apparently well-received premiere last year by Seattle’s Intiman Theater (which commissioned it) in association with L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum.

Trintiy Rep says the company worked with Holden for over a year to achieve “an even more vibrant, fast-paced and inventive production” of the play adapted from Barbara Ehrenreich’s best-selling book of social criticism championing this country’s working poor in dead-end jobs. But under Kevin Moriarty’s misguided direction, the resulting production is a crass, noisy, one-dimensional series of condescending comic-strip skits that completely undermine any sympathetic understanding of the play’s subject, the millions of American women and men who slave away at grossly underpaid jobs. There’s also something basically amateurish about the whole production, unusual for Trinity Rep.

Reality is always at bay as the cast of five women and one man play multiple roles, including gender reversals. Gaudy costumes, with padded rear ends, toothless false teeth, etc., are on hand, with the result that the performers seem to be caricaturing most of the characters rather than championing them.

Holden’s adaptation is also a problem: It never makes up its mind whether the play is about America’s working poor or about Barbara Ehrenreich herself, the “radical” central character, researching her book by going out and actually working at low-paying jobs and living at the bottom-of-the-heap level to which their low wages inevitably lead.

The play opens, frantically, in Florida at a fast-food restaurant at which a new waitress is schlepping through her first day. She turns out to be Barbara, the author of the book, the next scene revealing her at an upscale restaurant dining with her editor. She moves from waitressing, which apparently pays only $2.15 an hour plus tips, to making beds and cleaning toilets at an Economy Inn, to cleaning houses with Magic Maids, to caring for the inmates of an old-age home, to endlessly picking up thrown down clothing at a discount store.

And as she works in Florida, Maine and Minnesota she lives in a series of what can only be described as dumps. At times she attempts to help her co-workers, but they seldom respond because they aren’t radical and have too much to lose. Or so it would seem. One pearl of wisdom that’s dropped is: “There are no bad jobs, just bad pay.” The production doesn’t get much beyond that shallow level.

At one point the (non-existent) proscenium is breached and the actresses, we’re led to believe, speak as themselves directly to the audience, asking one another and the audience whether they’ve ever hired low-paying help. This is more of a gimmick than an enlightenment.

None of the performances ever break through the one-dimensional staging, and the end result of this Trinity production is that it strongly suggests that audiences would be better advised to stay home and read the book.

Nickel & Dimed

Chace Theater, Lederer Theater Center, Providence, R.I.; 558 seats; $48 top


A Trinity Repertory Co. presentation of a play in two acts by Joan Holden, based on the book by Barbara Ehrenrich, with additional material by Sophia Chumley. Directed by Kevin Moriarty.


Set, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, William Lane; lighting, Jeff Croiter; sound, Peter Sasha Hurowitz; guitarits and original music, Eric Fontana; stage manager, Cole Bonenberger. Trinity Rep artistic director, Oskar Eustis. Opened Feb. 5, 2003. Reviewed Feb. 8. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.


With: Cynthia Strickland, Angela Brazil, Mauro Hantman, Phyllis Kay, Barbara Meek, Maya Parra.
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