Barbara Ehrenreich’s indispensable investigation into the lives of the working poor, Nickel and Dimed, isn’t a book that screams for theatrical elaboration. Published in 2001, this exhaustively reported bestseller so effectively draws the reader into the world of wage slavery that you can practically smell the industrial-strength cleaning fluid on your hands and the hash-brown grease under your fingernails.
By this measure, Joan Holden’s stage adaptation is both superfluous and trivializing. Ehrenreich (played by Margot Avery) is a peppy journalist who goes undercover as a waitress, house cleaner, and sales clerk for her new book. She meets a gallery of hard-luck survivors who help her get by on as little as $2.49 an hour plus tips. “The less you have, the more everything costs,” says one character. The play awkwardly compresses Ehrenreich’s exposé into a hectic series of sketches. Some are quite funny, some rather moving, but none go beyond a light dusting of capitalism’s filthy surfaces. Audiences would be better off watching reruns of Alice—or better yet, rereading the original book. The subjects of Ehrenreich’s inquiry don’t have these comfortable options, of course. Every day is work and every hour counts toward rent. As one resigned soul puts it, “The fluorescent lights never go out.”