REVIEW by Willard Manus

NICKEL AND DIMED, the theatrical adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich's best-selling book, picks up where Michael Harrington's The Other America left off forty years ago. Although Harrington's expose of poverty led to LBJ's Great Society and other reforms, the poor are still with us, in ever-increasing numbers. (According to NICKEL AND DIMED, in recent years 30 million Americans sagged below the poverty line, working at minimum wage for largely rapacious corporations that also deny them medical and retirement benefits).

Adapted skilfully by Joan Holden, NICKEL AND DIMED is social drama at its best. It focuses on Ehrenreich herself (played vigorously by Sharon Lockwood), who, as she explains in asides to the audience, decided to see what it was like to work for $6.50 an hour. Over a three-month period she went from from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, working undercover in a fast-food joint, a nursing home and as part of a house-cleaning team. Her numerous fellow-workers are played by five other actors, all from Intiman Theatre in Seattle, where NICKEL AND DIMED had its world premiere earlier this summer, directed by Bartlett Sher.

What Ehrenreich discovered was that minimum-wage workers must chose between eating and paying rent; it's not possible to do both, not unless they take a second job, which is what she did, as a hotel chambermaid. The resulting weariness, lack of free time, alienation from family and friends, exposure to wretched working conditions and dangerous cleaning fluids, not only wrecked her health but her spirits. Ehrenreich was lucky in that she could get out and return to her comfortable middle-class life, but as NICKEL AND DIMED shows so well, most poor Americans are stuck in their dead-end existence forever.

The Other America failed to change things for the better and no doubt neither will Nickel and Dimed, though the play does its best to dramatize the horrors--and the black comedy-- of working for fascist-like companies such as Wal-Mart and Burger King. Nickel and Dimed also tries to break down the fourth wall by having its actors confront the audience with questions about how much they themselves pay their maids and other employees. The Taper also held regular post-show discussions on the issues raised in the play. The hope was that the audience would not only listen, observe and enjoy, but react.

The superb, quick-changing actors were Jason Cottle, Kristin Flanders, Cynthia Jones, Cristinbe McMurdo-Wallis and Olga Sanchez. Sher directed again, skilfully.

Nickel and Dimed ran through Oct. 27 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown L.A. Upcoming at the Taper is BIG RIVER--THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (Nov. 14-Dec. 29). Adapted from the novel by Mark Twain, the musical has music and lyrics by Roger Miller, book by William Hauptman, and is directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun.

Orginally produced at the Equity-waiver Deaf West Theatre two years ago, the show replaces Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul in the Taper's 2002/2003 schedule. Big River blends spoken and sign language (and singing) in a unique fashion. Call (213) 628-2772 or visit Deaf community information and charge: TDD (213) 680-4017.