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The wages of fear

Nickel and Dimed plays tourist below the poverty line

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Everyone I know has worked at least one "job from hell" and has a war story about the hardest, grossest, most thankless thing they've ever done for a paycheck. For me, being a summer bank teller turned out to be a bigger pain than cleaning toilets at a chain bookstore, whacking weeds at a golf course or moving crates at a plumbing supply warehouse.

At least I had the luxury of knowing the tasks were temporary. What if the job from hell was the best job you could get? What if you earned minimum wage and were happy to get it? In her best seller Nickel and Dimed, social critic Barbara Ehrenreich took subsistence-level work at the low end of the American totem pole to see if she could make ends meet. At times, she found she couldn't make ends meet, even when working double shifts.

Capturing economic realities that most Americans prefer to ignore, Nickel and Dimed became Exhibit A in the case for raising the national minimum wage and currently has enormous relevance to the national debate over immigrant labor. Ehrenreich's book has inspired a world premiere theatrical adaptation, written by Joan Holden and directed by Del Hamilton, but despite its righteous social concerns, Nickel and Dimed doesn't always, uh, work.

The play opens to find an older woman named Barbara (Dena Malon) struggling to learn to wait tables as a trainee at a chain restaurant, but she eventually pauses to tell the audience, "This is not my real life." A cozy, upper-middle-class intellectual success story, Barbara Ehrenreich got the idea to play tourist in the service industry -- or, more specifically, among the 32 percent of Americans who live on $7 an hour or less.

In effect, Barbara goes slumming undercover in Key West, Maine and Minneapolis. Some of her discoveries shock the audience and the author alike, like the worker who eats a bag of hot dog buns for lunch, or Barbara's discovery that Minneapolis' cheapest available lodging still costs more than her earnings. The play compellingly exposes the malfeasance of a super-store nicknamed "Mall-Mart," which forces employees to punch out but keep working to squeeze free labor from them.

The play achieves some effective moments of personal insight when Barbara appreciates how the other half lives. When she takes a part-time job cleaning motel rooms, she teams with a long-timer (Yvonne Singh) who practically works in slow motion. The writer gradually realizes the problem of being paid by the hour: "The faster you go, the less you earn."

The play's most intriguing relationship unfolds between Holly (Mary Claire Dunn), "team leader" for Magic Maids house cleaners in Maine, and franchise owner Ted (Clay Martin). Holly shows loyalty to the point of abject servility to Ted after three raises bump her pay to almost $8 an hour. Like a self-appointed union organizer, Barbara pushes Holly to put her health ahead of the job, but Holly bristles at the other woman's interference.

Nickel and Dimed's funniest moments come through the vivid characterizations of Singh, who also plays a petty-tyrant restaurant manager and a born-again Christian "associate" at Mall-Mart. But frequently the show's social conscience tramples all over its humor. Occasionally the show indicates the arduous realities of work, like a fast-paced moment of the restaurant "in the weeds." But too often the show ignores naturalism to make a statement, such as its caricature snapshots of irritating restaurant customers and shop-aholic Mall-Mart "guests," who seem as evil as modern-day corporate robber barons.

The show finds some laughs in Barbara's misplaced notions of her own celebrity: She worries that she'll be recognized, as if writing for Harper's gives her the famous face of a TV star. More often, Malon proves shrill and artificial, as if she's using "Murphy Brown" as her role model of a crusading journalist. She imagines telling a wealthy homeowner, "It's not rust staining your marble, lady! It's the blood of the worldwide working class!" I haven't read the book, but can only imagine that this kind of thing proves less irritating in print than hearing someone declaim it aloud.

Holden's script features some neat turns of phrase, like the idea that the working poor "subsidize" America's standard of living. It seems perfectly fair to rap the middle-class for encouraging the low prices -- and by extension their exploitative practices -- of discount chains: "Would you want to pay hardware store prices at Home Depot?" But that might be too simple. I don't think the working poor want to pay hardware store prices at Home Depot, either.

Nickel and Dimed sinks to its most maddening, condescending moment when the company brings the house lights up in the second act to directly ask members of the audience whether they've ever "dehumanized" the working class. It's hard to tell if the play is trying to lay a guilt trip on anyone who's ever hired a house cleaner, or maybe coax someone to defend the dignity of honest labor.

Plus, it's long. The show features two intermissions and lets out around 11 p.m. Well-intentioned but quite literally laborious, Nickel and Dimed made me wish I was paid by the hour.

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