By Rachel Breitman
“Nickel and Dimed” opens with a claustrophobic studio apartment that quickly transforms into a suffocating workplace.
The bed becomes a bench for hungry customers at a Florida fast food restaurant, and the galley kitchen counter changes into the serving space. Barbara, the bathrobe-clad protagonist, is faced with a barrage of confusing lunch orders, directions for the cash register, and complaints from impatient patrons. Caught in a nightmare, she can’t extricate herself from this exhausting pace and return to the quiet calm of her bedroom.
But Barbara (Margaret Avery) soon breaks the spell, reminding the audience that this isn’t her “real life.” She is not a fast food waitress, she’s Barbara Ehrenreich, the progressive New York journalist, and her nightmare is only “research” for her book on the lives of women working minimum wage jobs. (The resulting, real-life bestseller, “Nickel and Dimed, or (Not) Getting by in America,” was the basis for Joan Holden’s play.)
Just as Ehrenreich aspired to immerse herself in the world of the working class, the 3Graces Theater Co. asked its performers to delve into a similar situation before this production. Based upon a typical minimum wage salary, actors were required to live on $11.16 a day for food and miscellaneous purchases.
The company was founded in 2004 with the mission to stage women’s stories. Previous works have focused on women in war zones and in the workplace. This season’s theme is “Second Class Citizens,” with upcoming performances of “Machinal,” based upon the 1927 Ruth Snyder-Judd Gray murder trial and “Dream of a Common Langugage,” the story of 19th-century married painters.
Throughout “Nickel and Dimed,” Barbara never completely succeeds in blending into the workforce or dispensing with her “first class” status. Holden admitted in an interview with 3Graces co-artistic director Annie McGovern, that though the narrator “prides herself on her working-class roots… She really is middle-class and not willing to live the life that millions live every day.”
The play gives the audience distance from the narrator and insights into Barbara’s failings. While she self-righteously promises to “defend this poor, probably abused, malnourished kid, who needs some old-fashioned consciousness-raising,” midway through the play, she soon bails on her coworkers, quitting her cleaning job at the end of the month.
Earlier, while cleaning a house in Maine, she wonders if she spoke at her employer’s graduation and compares a kitchen she is cleaning to the lab where she did her thesis work. She even tampers with her experiment, informing the homeowners that “the blood of the world-wide working class…stains your entire life!” while trying to convince her boss to boost wages and offer paid maternity leave. But when she encourages coworkers to go on strike, they are offended with her condescension. Unlike her, they need the job.
The intimate, small theater puts the viewer right in the midst of Barbara’s struggles, as the stage shifts from bedroom to kitchen, cafeteria, car, and hotel room. What does surprise Barbara is the vibrant esprit de corps shared by her coworkers, which created by a strong ensemble cast of primarily female performers playing multiple parts. A three-piece band keeps the show lively with renditions of working class anthems like “9-to-5” and “Tubthumping.”
But the play runs too long. Part of the difficulty of adapting a full-length book for the stage is the exhaustion that sets in as the narrator proceeds to abandon a Florida Keys restaurant, a Maine maid service, and a Minnesota discount mega-mart. Barbara’s internal monologue, at first sweetly naive, becomes irritating, causing the story to lag.
Only at the play’s end, as Barbara types silently at her computer, do we get to hear the other characters really speak. If only the supporting cast had more dialogue earlier on liberating the play from its original book form the audience would have a clearer view of working women, without the lens of know-it-all narrator interpreting every word.
“Nickel and Dimed” runs through Oct. 28 at the Bank Street Theater, 155 Bank St., (212) 279-4200.