By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Among the six actors in Nickel and Dimed, now playing at Kitchen Dog Theater, only the lead, Kristina Baker, is a member of the Actors' Equity Association. That means something in this show that it might not in others.
Nickel and Dimed is based on journalist Barbara Ehrenreich's nonfiction bestseller about trying to live solely on minimum wage. She couldn't do it, of course. Few can. She got hungry. She couldn't find affordable housing. In a series of jobs as a motel maid, Wal-Mart stocker, Denny's waitress and nursing home attendant, Ehrenreich was plunged into a soul-sucking abyss of lousy hours, greedy bosses and crummy working conditions.
One low-paying job she didn't try was acting. I thought about that as I watched this preachy three-act play (adapted for the stage by Joan Holden). Few professions reward highly trained practitioners so poorly as theater acting. Of the more than 40,000 members of Actors' Equity, the national trade union for theater actors and stage managers, no more than about 5,500 are working in any given week, according to published estimates. Venues such as Kitchen Dog, WaterTower Theatre and Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, considered small- to medium-sized regional houses, may hire only one or two union actors per production.
Zero continues through May 6 at the Addison Theatre Centre's Black Box, 972-245-6218.
Union stage actors, when they're employed to act, are guaranteed a weekly salary that can range from a low of about $200 to $1,200 or more if they're the leads in a big-budget show. They're covered by health insurance (depending on the size of the theater's Equity contract) and can't be required to work more than a certain number of hours a day, with breaks included.
Non-union actors, who far outnumber their union brethren in Dallas theaters, don't fare as well. They must have day jobs to cover rent and other essentials while they're in a show. "Gas money,'' often no more than $100 or $200, is what they might get for the entire four- or five-week run of a production, plus many hours of unpaid rehearsals. Non-union actors also frequently are called upon to help get a production "up" before opening, volunteering their carpentry and sewing skills, painting scenery or hanging lights for no extra pay. They do it because it's the theater and they want the show to go on.
As I watched KDT's Nickel and Dimed it occurred to me that in it the five non-union actors--Rhonda Boutté, Cindy Beall, Lulu Ward, Christina Vela, Barry Nash--act out scenes depicting the drudgery of scutwork jobs that probably pay better than what they earn as actors. And they're doing it in a fairly glamorous setting for a play about the hoi polloi.
Scenic designer Bryan Wolford fills center stage with huge sculptural replicas of American coins. The precisely rendered lighting by Russell K. Dyer splashes the space with bright pools into which the characters swim. Sitting close by, musician Annie Benjamin softly strums a guitar as scenes unfold. It is all, in fact, a little too pretty for any serious portrayals of proletarian pain.
There's something distinctly condescending and off-putting about the whole enterprise. Instead of being humbled by her experience among the great unwashed, writer Ehrenreich, played by Kristina Baker, comes off as a snob. The play takes great pains to emphasize that Ehrenreich is way out of her element among the working poor. She has a Ph.D., lives in a paid-for home near Key West furnished with designer sofas and she writes for slick East Coast magazines. Even for her fish-out-of-water experiment, Ehrenreich isn't totally without resources, hanging on to her car and ATM card for emergencies.
Played out in chunky vignettes and narrated actor-to-audience, Nickel and Dimed turns Ehrenreich into a limousine liberal worried that if she tarries too long among the underclasses, she'll be unable to wash off their stink of poverty and failure. Observing co-workers like an anthropologist who has canoed upriver to commune with a primitive tribe, the Ehrenreich character asks during her stint at Wal-Mart, "Why are so many Midwesterners huge?" As a putdown of pushy customers, she snaps, "Abortion's wasted on the unborn."
Adding to the mean, snooty tone of the piece is the mean, snooty demeanor of Miss Baker, a starchy middle-aged actress with a grating voice and a halting delivery. Listening to her struggle for more than two hours to spit out her lines--bad memory or bad dental work?--was a chore and a half on opening night.
The rest of the cast puts in plenty of sweat equity running on and off the stage in multiple roles around Baker. Boutté has some affecting moments as a tired maid urging Ehrenreich to stretch work to fill the time. Beall and Ward make tasty hash of their turns as worn-out waitresses hustling for tips and sharing a quick cig out back. Vela and Nash settle for cliché caricatures as various bosses and representatives of the peasantry.
Nickel and Dimed short-changes its subject and its audience.
In a dozen nicely polished, sometimes poignant and often devilishly witty scenes, O'Connor takes us through a day and night in the life of an unemployed actor (that would be he) wallowing in self-pity. He wakes up hung-over in a strange bedroom (we find out later with whom he canoodled), hangs out with some old high school buddies and drunk-dials the dreamgirl who used to taunt him as "Fatty" when he weighed a C-note more.
There's a little of Vince Vaughn's charming leer in lines such as "You little bag of carrots, I could eat you up" and "I could MySpace that all afternoon." And a touch of the poet comes through when an Iraq war veteran describes combat experience as "days that pass like freight cars." He even works in some interpretive dance in a bit about a pretentious performance artist (as if there's any other kind) named Malthazar.
O'Connor, who resembles a young Jim Belushi, has a sharp ear for profane man-speak. His characters razz each other as "ass cheese" and vulgarly categorize women as "poon" and worse. The actor plays all three pals in a sequence involving the slamming of many Jagermeister shots and a dizzying round-robin bar conversation that caroms from girl-ogling to the war to the ghastly details of gonorrhea testing. All he has to do is shift his shoulders and tilt his head a little and we know which of the guys is talking. He's good at this acting thing--better than some Equity thesps we've seen lately.
If Zero describes O'Connor's sagging self-esteem onstage, he may need to check his math. This guy's numbers are only going up.
The play asks this question: Would you willingly sacrifice your life to save a loved one? A grieving sportswriter (Kevin Ash) must decide just that when time is reversed to a few weeks before the moment his surgeon-wife (Kelly Rypkema) will be killed in a car crash.
A train wreck would be more appropriate in this production. As my ears bled from listening to playwright Tony Sportiello's mawkish dialogue, as I groped for sharp objects to jam into my eye sockets to avoid watching Ash (Labyrinth founder and an Equity member) pull another goofy face in lieu of real acting, I decided I wasn't willing to sacrifice another hour of my life to chance more of the same dreary dreck in the second act. I won't be wandering back to Labyrinth until they do one called We Promise This Show Does Not Stink.