When Jesus said, "The poor are always with us," he had the right idea but the wrong address. The poor are always somewhere, but in our atomized, suburbanized lives, they're almost never within sight. We aren't allowed that distance with Joan Holden's adaptation of "Nickel and Dimed," Barbara Ehrenreich's 2001 bestseller about minimum-wage life in America. Here the intimacy of theater forces us to look into the faces and hear the stories of the desperate souls who serve our food, clean our houses and stock our shelves.
At least, that's the idea. Holden's play, which has appeared to acclaim in regional theaters, is receiving its New York premiere in a tiny off Off-Broadway theater, produced by a scrappy little company called 3Graces. Try as they might, these eager upstarts just don't have the chops for the play's rapid-fire mix of docudrama, agitprop and rueful absurdism.
Eleven actors shamble busily about Victoria Roxo's multilevel set in a flurry of costume changes, backed by an oddly underused live band. While some of the performers score some individual moments of clarity and insight, the show's rhythm, let alone its sense of ensemble, never gets rolling.
The tone is set by Margot Avery as narrator Barbara, a character roughly based on the book's author but beefed up to give the play a protagonist and an arc. A journalist who goes undercover to study the low-wage netherworld, Barbara must register indignation as she sees the wide chasm between the working poor and the rest of us. But Avery is an island of careworn calm; her energy level is late-shift.
When Barbara slaves as a waitress in a Florida greasy spoon with predictably disastrous results, the production aims for the inspired anarchy of farce and just comes up with anarchy. When she joins a female cleaning crew in Maine, the play clicks briefly as Barbara watches her co-workers chafe at the galling class divisions of their grimy work.
She also grows to know and root for them: simpering Holly (Elizabeth Bunnell), cranky Maddy (Elizabeth Wu) and crotchety Marge (Chelsea Silverman). Working two jobs, Barbara also befriends the big-talking cook (Richard Ferrone) at a senior care facility.
The production is strongest in these quiet conversational scenes. Barbara finds them short on self-pity, let alone the workers' solidarity she feels on their behalf. At her last job as a Wal-Mart "associate," she befriends a born-again mom named Melissa (Annie McGovern, who does fine work).
Given the many scenes of full-cast frenzy, these moments of connection are all the more precious. But no one is going to hire director Dave Dalton as a traffic cop. I wonder: How much do you think a traffic cop makes?
NICKEL AND DIMED. Written by Joan Holden, based on the book by Barbara Ehrenreich. Directed by Dave Dalton. 3Graces Theater Co. Through Oct. 28 at the Bank Street Theater, 155 Bank St., Manhattan. Tickets $20. Call 212-279-4200. Seen Sunday.