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Nickel and Dimed

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In the tradition of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, Barbara Erhenreich’s 2001 book Nickel and Dimed is an act of undercover journalism. It is aimed at revealing the ramifications of the 1996 welfare reform act on poverty-level workers in the United States.

 

Griffin’s hard-hitting insights about the color-line in the southern United States, in Black Like Me, made the transition from book to film in 1964; Erhrenreich’s tough treatise on the conditions of the American working class was reconfigured by dramatist Joan Holden into a stage play in 2002, when it also made its debut at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum.

 

Now, under Richard Kilroy’s hectically controlled direction, Holden’s script and Ehrenreich’s meaningful message get a respectful hearing via a Blue Eyes Productions staging at the intimate Hudson Mainstage Theatre, in Hollywood.

When Ehrenreich’s middle-aged, middle-class character, Barbara, gets an assignment to explore life at minimum wage, the question becomes, can she or any working adult live on $7 an hour (or less in some cases)?

Working a series of low-wage, low-skill jobs – as a waitress, paid $2.15 hourly (plus tips) at a chain restaurant called Kenny’s; as a maid for a cleaning franchise; and as a retail employee at a mega-chain, referred to as Mall-Mart – Barbara endures the indignities of toilet cleaning, tyrannical managers, and exploitive working conditions. At the retail store, employees are required to clock out only to continue their labors without compensation; an assistant manager explains to us that it’s no one in particular that’s to blame, “it’s the numbers,” and labor costs are the only adjustable variable.

Unlike her underclass cohorts, Barbara has the fallback position of credit cards and a home and husband in Florida. Still, she is quickly convinced that she will only be able to make ends meet as a low-wage worker if she takes additional jobs, not unusual at this level of employment  Many workers, as we see here, have multiple places of employment.

More agitprop than traditional drama, Nickel and Dimed is nonetheless an indispensible piece of political theater. The unerring truth revealed in this two-hour plus production is that the underpaid, uninsured bottom-rung workers of our country provide a wholly unacknowledged subsidy to our nation’s economy.

What’s more, we get awful insights into the drudgery and concerns of those struggling to survive the rigors and humiliations of work at the bottom of the social barrel. When an employee injures herself in a work-related incident, she is loath to report it for fear that she may lose pay and a promotion. Further, most of these miserable employment venues require that prospective workers suffer the indignation of having a pre-employment drug screening of their urine.

Nickel and Dimed – with many scene changes, props, and characters – is a difficult play to stage. Nevertheless, Kilroy’s cast and crew (Kilroy is also credited with the complicated but effective set design) are dedicated to and succeed in conveying Ehrenreich’s socially conscious sentiment.

Zachary Barton embodies the role of Barbara with intelligence and heartfelt commitment. Barton’s earthy demeanor and courageous frankness make her character admirable and believable.

But there are a half-dozen other performers who also populate the stage, each incarnating various personas. Kudos to Kathleen Ingle, Johnnie Torres, Carmen Lezeth Suarez, Matthew Wrather, Jackie Joniec, and Veronica Alicino for their credible characterizations.

Nickel and Dimed is a timely and empathetic theatrical project (maybe more so now than a decade ago) that deserves to be seen by anyone concerned about the growing gap between the have and have nots and by those who appreciate socially aware theater. It’s no wonder that the subtitle of Ehrenreich’s book is On (Not) Getting By in America.

Nickel and Dimed continues at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre through August 25. The Hudson Mainstage is located at 6539 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles. Evening performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Matinees are Sundays at 3 p.m. For reservations, call (323) 960-5770.


 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.