Change is good

Blue Room’s Nickel & Dimed fleshes out story of minimum-wage existence

BARELY GETTIN’ BY Each cast member takes on a handful of roles in the minimum-wage meditation of the Blue Room’s <i>Nickel &amp; Dimed</i>. From left, Lorna Bridges, Sherri Bagley, Asia Love-Brock, Betty Burns, Erika Sorensen and Ben Allen.

BARELY GETTIN’ BY Each cast member takes on a handful of roles in the minimum-wage meditation of the Blue Room’s Nickel & Dimed. From left, Lorna Bridges, Sherri Bagley, Asia Love-Brock, Betty Burns, Erika Sorensen and Ben Allen.

Photo By Tom Angel

I have wanted to read the book Nickel & Dimed, the exposé by Barbara Ehrenreich, ever since it debuted in 2001. So when I saw that a play version by Joan Holden was coming to the Blue Room, I leaped at the chance to see it.

Subtitled On (Not) Getting By in America, the story details the experience of Ehrenreich, a writer and self-described “social critic,” who decides to walk in the shoes of America’s working poor to answer this question: Can one live and pay rent making only six to seven dollars an hour? Her journey takes her to several states: Florida, where she works at “Kenny’s” restaurant; Maine, working at “Magic Maids"; and Minnesota, working at “Mal-Mart.”

In the Blue Room’s production, Ehrenreich is played by the multi-talented Betty Burns, who must convince each new set of co-workers that she, like them, is living without the safety net of her education and writer’s income. Her outsider’s eye makes for some interesting observations: The psychological tests required for some jobs (yes or no: Being late to work is OK if you have a good excuse) to the politics of smoking (nurturing your tobacco-induced tumor while on a smoke break is something you can do for yourself). Unfortunately for Burns, this character is by necessity a little two-dimensional—she never quite makes connections with the people she is “studying” and thus always seems a bit like an anthropologist studying an elusive species.

The supporting characters in this re-enactment of her experience are what really draw you in. This is one advantage over the book, as the use of a play as a vehicle for this “story” allows each of the people whose lives touched the writer to be animated by the actors. In addition, the use of one actor to represent more than one character (each actor takes on at least three different characters) underscores the idea that there is a connection among them all, a similarity of circumstance and opportunity.

Lorna Bridges starts off as Gail, a veteran waitress who shows writer “Barb” the ropes. Her body language expresses the weariness of a lifetime serving others with a smile.

Erika Sorenson is particularly good at showing a range of characters, from the stiff-jointed older woman cleaning hotel rooms, to the generous fellow “associate” at Mal-Mart offering her a place to live. Sheri Bagley, Benjamin Allen and Asia Love-Brock were all adept as well at morphing from one accent or even gender to the next.

The sets were simple—a few seats and a few carts, which emphasized the bleakness of the day-to-day drudgery, the lack of an existence beyond the fluorescent-lighted confines of the store. The use of an overhead projector to flash bits of information about each job was a clever way to encourage contemplation of this heavy subject.

Coming Friday & Saturday, Feb. 18-19, at 11 p.m. is another Blue room late-night offering, the original work Jimmy Zahn, the Flying Mortician. Writer-director Ryan J. Graham describes the work as “a dark comedy—a penny western about a mortician who moonlights as a wrestler on the pro Soviet circuit. So, it’s a synthesis of a number of ideas, like East and West. The story of Jimmy Zahn gets told by the point of view of two cowboys as they bed down for the night on the edge of some ridge, and the story that is elicited from the smoke of the campfire is of Jimmy Zahn, this bizarre fictional character.”

Performing the part of Zahn will be Blue Room company member James Barkowska, who has just been accepted into that seminal Los Angeles improv company, The Groundlings. As soon as the late-night showings are done, the play will be shot as a movie in March—both versions are being produced by Eric Killian.