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Pay Check

The Unicorn's Nickel and Dimed is too shiny.


So there the president was, in 2004, accepting the nomination a second time, bullshit plopping out of his mouth like candy from a Pez dispenser. As an example of what he'd just called "expanding liberty," he boasted: "In one of the most dramatic shifts our society has seen, two-thirds of all moms also work outside the home."

A swell of applause from the Republican faithful. Bush stumbled on, blinking out at the nation in his squirrelly way, as if he were still a drunk and we were the cop shining a flashlight into his driver's seat: "This changed world can be a time of great opportunity for all Americans to earn a better living, support your family and have a rewarding career."

It could be, sure. But back in 1981, when half the mothers on my block took night shifts at the J.C. Penney Distribution Center, I doubt any of them mistook brute economic necessity for liberty.

This is the great economic swindle of our times: Some women wanted to work, and now, when those forces that fought off women's lib have hit on how to profit from it, most women have to work. Lower still is Bush taking credit for something that his ilk originally opposed — a phenomenon that eventually left us kids with heaps of unsupervised time to take up smoking, beat the crap out of each other and coax dogs into fights.

Of course, then, I toast the Unicorn Theatre for staging Deborah Holden's theatrical riff on Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich's scathing exposé on how the working poor experience trickle-down — straight from the nation's toilets. At one point, Ehrenreich — a steely social critic who for months tried to get by as a low-wage worker in three cities — finds herself scrubbing a palatial bathroom, and I was gratified to see that the Unicorn didn't shy away from shit: It stains the lid, the bowl, her hands, the entire life of each maid. Too bad this is ultimately a show I want to vote for more than sit through.

The heart of Ehrenreich's book (and this fragmented script) is how her leftist ideals wither in the face of practical reality. When a pregnant maid tumbles down a staircase, spraining a knee, Ehrenreich calls for a work stoppage until the franchise manager springs for an X-ray. Her co-workers are dumbstruck: risk that week's check?

Peggy Friesen plays Ehrenreich as an educated woman trying to dial back her grace and self-possession; that she never quite fits in feels true. (Her monologue scenes sparkle.) The rest of the cast, playing her co-workers and managers, have their moments. Cheryl Weaver, whose Florida waitress rests her head in her hands at the end of shift, flattens her natural aplomb in favor of an affecting weariness. Lynn King is likewise stirring, hitting notes of documentary realism, especially as a maid who hauls herself around her hotel like a glacier hauling north.

Several scenes provide realist kicks in the gut, but with too many too-long scenes laying out what only Bush doesn't already know, I spent less time contemplating the raw edges of capitalism then I did Blue Bunny ice cream, particularly those on-a-stick treats at the Westport Sun Fresh.

Beaming off each ice cream box is the image of a worker — spotless, soft-handed and in no way an actual nurse or construction guy. Many of the working stiffs Ehrenreich meets in these two hours seem to come straight from Blue Bunny photo shoots. As they talk about their aching feet and what it's like to live in a van, they're actors, "on" in a way that people trudging through a double shift never are.

When David Fritts' Wal-Mart manager gives an essential speech about how "the numbers" wield power over us all, he looks like Bush's fantasy: someone who works because he wants to and is likely to suck on a Bunny pop — which looks a lot like shit — and think that everything's all right.

Men don't come off well in Nickel and Dimed. Male managers harass women, and boyfriends and husbands are unreliable. This doesn't seem to bother anyone. Why, then, do the plays and films of Neil LaBute get so much static for their alleged misogyny?

A mean prank scotched up as a love story, his The Shape of Things —which is enjoying an impressive staging at the Barn Players — isn't about what women are. It's about what men, at our worst, fear that women are. As such, it's more satire than it is shock theater. As directed by Eric Magnus, it's also funny as hell. It's a community production, meaning that at least one actor flounders a bit, you'll suffer through some momentum-killing set changes, and it's too demure at times. Still, this is a swift, bruising dash through men's most secret fears. Once Evelyn (the poised and hungry Christina Schafer) sweeps up geeky Adam (the funny, excitable Jason Bradbury), we join him in crashing right over the falls.

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