As a financially comfortable woman, successful writer, and college graduate, social critic Barbara Ehreneich had no idea what to expect when she accepted an assignment to go undercover as a member of the working class. After all, she wondered, how hard could it be for someone with her credentials and education to wait tables? In Joan Holden's touching and comical dramatization of Ehreneich's best-selling nonfiction book Nickel and Dimed, we see just how difficult it really is. The play opens with failed attempts by Barbara (Margot Avery) to learn the computer ordering system in a fast-food restaurant called Kenny's, while the cook barks commands and impatient customers harass her for being too slow with their orders.
The stage is wonderfully constructed to lend itself to the diversity of Barbara's jobs. A stiff-looking cot sits in its center waiting to be tidied by Barbara and the other Economy Inn housekeepers. Behind that is a toilet she cleans as a Magic Maid, and to the left is a counter where she folds clothes as a Mall-Mart associate. But the most effective staging technique used to express the book's theme is the long, rectangular chalkboard suspended above the stage, where characters write the hourly wage Barbara is getting paid in each new job she undertakes.
Holden writes that "the story is both serious and funny," and the actors deliver on this premise, playing their multiple roles as minimum-wage workers with humor, wit, and charisma. A sassy housekeeper (Cherelle Cargill) works in slow motion, ridiculing Barbara for her speed when they get paid by the hour, not the room. Jeremy Beck plays several quirky characters, but is especially dead-on in his portrayal of a devout Mall-Mart manager who balks when Barbara writes that she moderately agrees with the statement "there's room in every corporation for a nonconformist."
Credit must also go to the live band, Chip Barrow, Paul Fess, and John D. Ivy, whose performances define the mood. When Barbara takes a second job to pay the rent, the musicians burst into an uplifting rendition of the Chumbawamba song "Tubthumping" ("I get knocked down, but I get up again") before blending into a slower and sadder "Help, I've fallen and I can't get up again" as Barbara joins the staff of a nursing home for a meager $7 an hour.
The song transitions are symbolic of the life the low-wage workers lead in this play, one that starts with optimism and hopes that are quickly crushed as reality sets in.
3Graces Theatre Company clearly has its heart in this production, even going so far as to have its actors live one week on a minimum-wage salary in New York City, restricting them to a budget of $11.16 a day for all purchases. The playbill is also filled with stories, quotes, comic strips, and statistics about the minimum wage and the federal poverty line.
Still, looking at the bright side of things, one of the playbill's comic strips helpfully points out that despite the hardships low-wage workers face, they can always take solace in the fact that "nobody will ever mug you for your paycheck."