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It is a bizarre experience to stand outside the Mark Taper Forum near the valet parking line ($19 a car), after seeing a provocative show about the lives of low-wage workers in America, watching high-haired women in thousand-dollar dresses shimmy among a never-ending stream of Benzes, Lexuses, and even a Rolls or two, offering the frantic valets $2 tips. Aside from my press seats, I bought two tickets to Nickel and Dimed—$100 for two tickets, one quarter of my weekly salary, one half the weekly salary of the workers this show depicts. But as my guest remarked, that's exactly the idea here. This is a show about those who have not, aimed precisely at those who have. Rarely has the premise that America is the world's great social experiment been examined with such keenness, courage, and artistry.

Thirty percent of the American population makes $8 an hour or less. Is that enough to pay rent? Feed yourself? Feed kids? Journalist and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich asks herself these questions before taking on the assignment of a lifetime: Move to a small town, get a low-wage job, find a cheap place to live, and see if it's possible to get by as a single woman.

From her struggle through an America not often visible in the media came Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, here adapted with intelligence by Joan Holden, unsettling without being overly self-righteous or resorting to caricature. A phenomenal cast and Bartlett Sher's sparkling direction buoys a colorful journey.

Statistics are used sparingly, memorably. Scenes are neatly crafted, inherently dramatic, and often very funny. Sher's blocking is dance-like, kept on its toes by the percussive, brilliantly suited music of Michael McQuilken, onstage with drum kit and keyboard.

Sharon Lockwood gives a smart, human rendering of Ehrenreich, offering a wonderfully convincing depiction of a woman earnestly struggling to knock through the wall of her own privilege into an understanding of life on the other side. She's nervous, determined, self-deprecating without seeming whiney.

In the shockingly protean ensemble, Cynthia Jones morphs stunningly from sassy waitress to the arthritic housekeeper to the lonely retail employee. Cristine McMurdo-Wallis is brilliantly cast as the salty uninsured waitress, equally engaging as a crew member. The hugely talented Jason Cottle transforms from Ehrenreich's editor to Czech immigrant to wealthy homeowner. Kristin Flanders delights both as the hostess who lives in her car and the pregnant maid who collapses on the job. Olga Sanchez moves from the exasperated diner chef to a nervous working mom on probation.

John Arnone's rotating set is functional and evocative, from the hanging ferns and plastic orange upholstery of the diner to the white linoleum floors of an upper-class Maine home to an oddly beautiful forest of metal clothing racks.

It's hard not to cite this as one of the most exciting and well-rendered productions this year, and one of several shrewd and daring choices the Taper has made this season.

"Nickel and Dimed," presented by Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown L.A. Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 2:30 p.m., Sun. 7:30 p.m. Sept. 19-Oct. 27. $31-45. (213) 628-2772.

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