Sunday, September 22, 2013

Service With A Snarl

It's hard to avoid the tender and occasionally tasty tentacles of the service industry. For anyone who likes to dne in restaurants, stops to have a drink at a bar, or hangs out at a cafe, service with a smile (which was once considered the norm) has increasingly become a perk.

Some people hunger for new experiences at the trendiest dining spots; others find themselves craving comfort food served to them by comforting comrades. Cheers (the popular television series that ran for 11 years) boasted a tagline that identified it as the place "where everybody knows your name." Frank Bruni's charming article in The New York Times entitled Familiarity Breeds Content captured the essence of developing an ongoing relationship with a favorite restaurant's menu and staff.

But for those who pour the drinks, deliver food to the table, and have to deal with a wide spectrum of dysfunctional behavior from people whose generosity and good will directly affect their incomes, customers are often pegged by the number of the table at which they've been seated seated or the percentage of the bill they leave behind in the form of a tip. Sometimes, as in the opening scene of 1956's hit musical, The Most Happy Fella, a simple gesture can pave the lyrical road to a complex romance.

Each September, as I attend performances at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, I'll spot a series of attractions that share an unintentional common bond. This year's theme was unmistakable: intelligent women struggling to maintain their dignity while working for tips in the service industry.

What made this year's trio of monologues so interesting was that one took place in a bar, one took place in a restaurant that was attached to a bar, and one took place in a restaurant without a bar. Each service situation offered up a variety of wounded egos, abusive working conditions, and thick-skinned damsels who were ready and able to dish out as much distress as they received from their customers.

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Let's start with the basics: a female bartender who has kicked a nasty cocaine habit and is now trying to serve and mollify a motley group of manipulative men with various alcohol-related behavioral problems.
  • One man is an effete snob who thinks that a free round of drinks can solve everyone's problems.
  • One man is a former pugilist who's been cut off from being served alcohol at the insistence of the bar's owner, but who can't afford to lose face among his friends.
  • One man is an obnoxious Italian tourist who can't understand why a female bartender would insist on seeing a piece of identification that proves he's of legal drinking age.
  • One man is always trying to prove his machismo while telling the bartender how much he "respects" her.
  • Finally, there is the smarmy bar owner who won't hesitate to sabotage his bartender's authority as long as he can remind everyone that he owns the place and considers himself a local hero.
Jill Vice in The Tipped and the Tipsy

In her monologue, The Tipped and the Tipsy (which was honored as one of the best attractions at the 2013 San Francisco Fringe Festival), Jill Vice takes on the physical and vocal characteristics of her clientele at Happy's Bar in an impressive array of body language and vocal talent. Without using any props, she describes the never-ending power plays from customers, the pressures to keep them happy, and shares the challenge of trying to rescue the alcoholic boxer who helped her break a nasty coke habit when he, himself, can't risk having another drink.

Jill Vice in The Tipped and the Tipsy

Vice's performance is robust, her material well written, and her characters quite memorable. She earns the audience's sympathy as a tough broad trying to protect an alcoholic senior from his own worst enemy: himself.

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Alexa Fitzpatrick, whose monologue is entitled Serving Bait to Rich People, describes what it was like to come to the sad realization that, although she had a solid background in endocrinology, she could earn more money tending bar. An avowed ski bum, she ended up in Aspen where celebrities and other wealthy tourists flocked to the expensive sushi restaurant where she tended bar.

Alexa Fitzpatrick in Serving Bait To Rich People

Aspen, however, is a small town that relies on the service industry. While some celebrities are nice to her and prove to be decent tippers, others can be astonishingly rude and cheap.

Fitzpatrick's performance style is much more like stand-up comedy. While she gets plenty of laughs, many of them come at her own expense as she describes how one's expectations are quickly diminished with more exposure to the local dating scene. She also delivers a scathing analysis of the various pick-up lines men use when trying to hit on a bartender (often to no avail).

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There were multiplel reasons why I found Parly Girl to be the most compelling of the Fringe Festival's three monologues about women in the service industry. First and foremost was the fact that, at the performance I attended, there were barely six people in the audience (an actor's nightmare).

But Sandra Brunell Neace had quite a tale to tell. What set her monologue apart from the other two?
  • Whereas Jill Vice and Alexa Fitzpatrick are attractive women who can easily be categorized as an "actress/model/waitress," Neace's bulky frame, pouty face, and chip-on-the-shoulder attitude place her at a distinct disadvantage when serving the public.
  • Whereas Vice and Fitzpatrick's efforts were primarily focused on dealing with male customers, most of Neace's clientele were women (some with kids in strollers, some with dietary restrictions, but almost all of them with "first world" issues).
  • Whereas, because of their looks and charisma, Vice and Fitzpatrick rarely had to worry about trying to survive on minimum wage, the plainness of Neace's presentation and the pathetic cheapness of her customers proved to be a distinct disadvantage.
  • Whereas Vice and Fitzpatrick did not necessarily see their bartending work as a career obstacle, Neace had moved to New York with high hopes of becoming an actress.
  • Whereas Vice and Fitzpatrick were experienced at fending off men's sexual advances, Neace's naiveté played a critical role in her failing to understand that her boss's attempt to get her to make a porn film with him was actually his way of covering for a complete lack of social skills.

Neace helps to put a pained face on the lives of many people in the service industry who are barely scraping by while having to keep their mouths shut while trying to please wealthier people who can't stop moaning and bitching about the hardships and injustices of their daily lives. As a result, her narrative finds its dramatic strength in a much deeper level of financial despair and a growing inability to tolerate fools while keeping a smile frozen on her face.

Sandra Brunell Neace in Parly Girl

Just when Parly Girl begins to feel like a sad sack's tale of utter hopelessness and helplessness, Neace's solid writing explains how her personal vulnerability helped her to take charge of a transformative moment that rekindled her soul, reframed her ambitions, and allowed her to find a moment of grace by picking up the tab for two women who had just lost their father. It's a beautiful transition, which this talented writer/actor handles with the wisdom of a woman who has experienced far too much misery and emotional pain of her own to trivialize the aching heart of another.

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