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The World’s Oldest Cater Waiter: My Life in Three Courses

The World’s Oldest Cater Waiter: My Life in Three Courses. Dramedy. Written and Performed by Michael Patrick Gaffney. Directed by Ken Sonkin. SF Fringe Festival, PianoFight, 144 Taylor Street, San Francisco.

The tried but true Hollywood cliché that most waiters are out of work actors is deliciously examined in this brilliantly conceived, directed and acted one-man tour de feast. Based on Gaffney’s dual career as both an accomplished actor (Anything Goes, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Gypsy and The Drowsy Chaperone) and high-end cater waiter, the fast-paced show flies through the successes and failures endemic of both his dual pursuits. The fear of ending up the oldest living cater waiter and not achieving his acting dreams is examined through Gaffney’s hilarious recollections, starting with the opening sequence of an aged, buck toothed, coke bottled glasses waiter using his walker as a serving cart.

Born of hard working, service-oriented Irish immigrants, Gaffney is smitten with the acting bug early on in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, playing the Giant in a school production of Jack and the Beanstalk. His drama coach Billie Sue instills in him a strong acting ethic that sustains him throughout the show. Moving to San Francisco, Gaffney works at a Circle K discount store, playing costumed characters at kid’s parties with disastrous results.  His romanticized visions of waiting, fostered by movie images of David Niven and Anthony Hopkins are dashed when with the harsh reality of employment at a tawdry café lunch counter. Fired after snapping at a customer over a late appetizer (the infamous potato skin incident), Gaffney is buoyed by receiving his Actor’s Equity card and starring in his first theatrical hit, a naked musical revue called Party which runs for 7 months. A number from that show has Gaffney singing “Legit Stage Actor” sung to the tune of “Broadway Baby” with special lyrics by Tom Orr.

Michael Patrick Gaffney and fellow alum Kristen Chenoweth. Photo by Skip Goodman.

Michael Patrick Gaffney and fellow alum Kristen Chenoweth. Photo by Skip Goodman.

Gaffney finds joy in cater waitering when he realizes that guests are better than paying customers; they are better behaved and all get the same meal! And he’s very good at what he does, using his inborn integrity and Miss Debbie Sue’s admonition that he’s got tenacity. But it’s not all glamour and famous guests like President Obama. Gaffney snaps at a multi-million-dollar affair when a certain chain smoking romance novelist whose name sounds like Stanielle Deele, pushes him over the edge. It’s not his finest moment, as is his sessions with a self-absorbed therapist who cries a lot. When fellow Broken Arrow alum Kristen Chenoweth wins a Tony Award, is Gaffney bitter? You bet, and it naturally puts his life choices into question. “What are the chances that two people from his town will win the coveted award”?

Its not all glamour being a cater waiter/actor. Photo by Skip Goodman.

Its not all glamour being a cater waiter/actor. Photo by Skip Goodman.

Comedians make for some great dramatic actors, and Gaffney serves up poignant moments to balance the madcap comic vaudeville. Starring anxiously at a tray of tall champagne flutes, Gaffney relates his greatest fears of enduring bad backs, strained wrists and shaky hands. His agony of complying with the strict Standards of Service, the nasty privileged one percenters and the struggle over whether he’s an actor who waits or a waiter who acts is wonderfully illuminated.

Gaffney is a fine comic actor, with the clown style of a Geoff Hoyle or a Bill Irwin. Delivering bits of Shakespeare dialogues and concluding with a self-realization that cater waiting is a part he plays with reverence and dignity, displays his strong dramatic acting chops. Tom Orr adds special lyrics to the survivor’s mantra “I’m Still Here”, full of cuisine metaphors and references. The Oldest Living Cater Waiter: My Life in Three Courses is all that’s great about one -man shows; sharp, crisp delivery, brilliant acting, fantastic direction (kudos to Ken Sorkin) and a compelling universal story. This show is certainly a highlight of the Fringe Festival and deserves a much longer run.

Performances run Saturday, September 17th at 8:30 and Friday, September 23rd at 7pm. 415.673.3847 www.sffringe.org