by Tracey Paleo, Gia On The Move

During the mid 90’s, living in New York City, I lost my job at a time when Manhattan was becoming less and less forgiving of artists who couldn’t afford to be creative under the conditions of soaring rents and noticeably less decent paying employment, being categorized as “unskilled” labor.  In other words, had it not been for the fact that I luckily had a college education, an entrepreneurial spirit, knowledge of a few options, friends and enough practicality to create, out of almost thin air, a successful non-theatrical business to support myself, I could have just as easily ended up as a Walmart check-out cashier or a waitress, barely enduring on tips (although I did do my fair share of two to three steady survival jobs per day for a while).  As luck would have it, that was not to be my fate.

I remember walking out, dead in the middle of the first act, of a New York Theatre Workshop production about homeless people living in the NYC subway, which upset me to the point of dizziness. As I crossed the Bowery, the light turned green and I suddenly collapsed (in the middle of traffic) in a fit of hysteria and tears screaming out loud that I was going to end up just like them.  My boyfriend at the time, literally picked me up, carried me to the corner, kissed my forehead and assured me with complete confidence that everything would be OK.  I’d get through it.  And I did. #DramaQueen!

There are a huge percentage of other people however, who do not.

Nickel and Dimed now playing at the Hudson Mainstage in Hollywood, CA is not a revelation in so much as what we all know.  Work in America is sketchy.  It’s harder to find, pays less, asks for more of people than ever before and for a vast majority, keeps them at the poverty level only fantasizing the lifestyles of the rich and famous.  It’s no wonder why pop celebs like the Kardashians or Paris Hilton or Justin Bieber for instance continue to hold such power in the eyes of a low-income fan base that drools over the clothes, the cars, the vacations, the fun they’ll never have except over a cup of Sleepy Time tea.

Nickel and Dimed Zachary Barton as Barbara and Carmen Lezeth Suarez as Carlie
Nickel and Dimed Zachary Barton as Barbara and Carmen Lezeth Suarez as Carlie

But ordinary things like, having a Sunday off once in a while to go to Church or having enough money to pay a baby sitter while working instead of relying on your 10 year old to mind the other kids or getting maternity leave or going to a hospital for treatment after getting injured on the job, shouldn’t we be able to at least have that?

Not so according to book writer Barabara Ehrenreich’s actual autobiographical experience, played by Zachary Barton, who in very real life at the age of 50, goes under cover to investigate the lives of truly desperate people living among us as the minimum wage, underprivileged simple folk.  Working back to back shifts as a chamber maid, waitress, house cleaner and and an elder care assistant, she is down and out trying to get an apartment, pay rent, buy food and (unsuccessfully) public emergency assistance on less than $7 per hour. What’s worse, is that she faces a very real dilemma — Is this kind of survival just another choice?

Nickel and Dimed, as a written by playwright Joan Holden, although ten years old, is still a an interesting piece, in that it tries very hard not to take sides. It premiered in 2002 as an adaptation of the book written by real life author and main character, Barbara Ehrenreich, in theatrical form.  The writing itself, although not politically thermogenic, is timely and still manages to present the audience with crystal clear insight. But as I observed this production, I found myself trying very hard to care about any single one of these characters.

Nickel and Dimed, as currently presented by Bright Eyes Productions, certainly tells an effective story.  But it wasn’t exciting.  Nor was it even, always believable. The first act had a tough time grabbing attention with Ms. Barton’s light touch delivery.  It took the second act to get “hot” when Ms. Barton, as the driving lead of the show got into her groove. In all fairness, Ms. Barton was not always well supported by the predictable stage direction and sometimes even the props which occasionally came across as scene-study-ish.  And the whole show lacked a bit of luster with too many tepid and reflexive character deliveries as well as occasional mugging in place of real emotional break down from other cast members.

Ms. Barton did deliver overall especially when she breaks the fourth wall to talk to the audience.  These are her shining star moments.  And the cast does put in a decent show, if not astonishing. Excellent portrayals by Kathleen Ingle who brought a lot of subtly, nuance, a little bit of firecracker and most of all, utter believability, to every one of her characters and scenes. Also, worth noting was a strong performance by actress Carmen Lezeth Suarez.