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Chronicles of the Working Class 

The book Nickel and Dimed is a first-rate journalistic look at minimum-wage life. The play it inspired is just journalism.

Wednesday, Sep 17 2003
Books about wage labor happen every generation. The 1930s had George Orwell, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck; the '60s had journalism like Studs Terkel's; the last decade's recession and boom have inspired memoirs about being out on your ass like Selling Ben Cheever (by John Cheever's son) and Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. For the latter book, Ehrenreich dropped out of her sheltered life as a successful author and tried paying the rent on minimum-wage gigs at a restaurant, a maid service, a nursing home, and Wal-Mart. Her report became a national best-seller, and now Joan Holden -- former playwright for the San Francisco Mime Troupe -- has adapted the story into a high-profile play.

Selling Ben Cheever and Nickel and Dimed both follow upper-middle-class writers into the underworld of wage labor. Cheever's book is a bit more affecting, because Cheever, as a failed novelist, really did need whatever job he could find. He was honest with everyone about his writing career, and the sorrowful punch line is that most people couldn't have cared less -- including his colleagues behind the counter at Barnes & Noble.

In Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich disguises her true career and pretends to be one of the working poor. This game is the book's reason for being, as well as its major flaw: It keeps Ehrenreich's focus on herself. We learn about Barbara in Key West, Barbara in Maine, and Barbara in Minnesota, living comically below the poverty line and failing to pay the rent. Her writing is funny and sharp, but the people she meets pass inevitably, and vaguely, in the background, since Ehrenreich never gets close enough to understand their stories. The exception proves the rule: It's actually a relief when Ehrenreich finds a woman in Minnesota who has raised a family on minimum-wage jobs and can tell her full story without compromising the research project.

Ehrenreich's experiment gives up some keen insights, so her solipsism in the book is excusable. In a play it's deadly. The almost three-hour show has no epic story of the working life to tell except Barbara's. A small cast changes costume as smaller characters at (for example) "Kenny's," a Denny's-like restaurant in Florida, or "Mall-Mart," a monolithic discount store near Milwaukee. The acting is solid, for the most part, but the shallow characterizations allow Holden to impose broad Mime Troupe clichés on the story -- a rich-bitch homeowner in Maine, idiot Kenny's customers from Utah. (Almost no one in this cast, by the way, can nail a Maine accent.) By the end we have a play that looks a lot like socialist agitprop and almost nothing like a documentary.

Still, Ehrenreich's point -- that minimum-wage work is not just backbreaking but also useless for paying rent, since rents have skyrocketed across the nation -- comes through loud and clear. It's one thing to know about the housing crisis, and quite another to see it onstage. Barbara feels proud of herself for landing a small efficiency apartment in Florida for only $500 a month after learning that the other workers at Kenny's live in trailers, flophouses, or residence hotels for twice as much. When she mentions it to Gail, another waitress, Gail says, "Where'd you get the deposit?"

Exactly. To live in even a shitty apartment you need at least two months' rent up front -- which most of Barbara's co-workers can't afford. "I thought low-wage workers must have a secret economy that makes everything cost less," she says onstage, echoing one of the book's prime insights. "Wrong. The poorer you are, the more everything costs."

The strongest segment, at Mall-Mart, features a crowd of employees in blue vests dancing happily around with rolling clothes racks -- a funny satire of a Wal-Mart commercial -- then shows Barbara working overtime, on manager's orders, off the clock. That's right: Unpaid labor is how managers keep their overhead down. The manager, to excuse himself, addresses the mostly middle-class audience directly: "Are you willing to pay department store prices at IKEA? Of course not ...." Discount stores need discount labor. And Wal-Mart is the largest corporate employer in the land.

The facts are Ehrenreich's, and the facts of low-wage labor are what make Nickel and Dimed worthwhile. A handful of strong performances do bring the play fitfully to life -- Julia Brothers as Gail; Elizabeth Carter as Carlie, a bent-backed hotel maid; and Sharon Lockwood as Barbara. (Lockwood originated the role of Barbara in Seattle last year.) Michael Goldberg also fingers a nice jazz accompaniment on a mellow electric guitar, and Robert Ted Anderson lights the stage in suitable heat-lamp orange and fluorescent white. But too much of the writing is awkward and stiff. Nickel and Dimed, in the end, is journalism, not drama. Holden urges everyone in her playwright's notes to "Read the book!" and the best I can do is second that opinion.


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