Media Circus: humble pie

Alec Mapa went from Broadway glory to slinging pepperoni -- and back.

Published October 10, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

The waiter-who's-really-an-actor is by now such a clichi that it seems no inside-Hollywood scenario is complete these days without him. The prissy character who announces, "Hi, I'm Alec and ..." is always good for a laugh in any sitcom or movie about the business, especially when the screenwriter is in a phoning-it-in sort of mood.

But what's the real story behind the stereotype? Alec Mapa was a working character actor who at one point had the starring role in "M. Butterfly" on Broadway. He hit a streak of truly bad luck, spent six months in the purgatory of the California Pizza Kitchen in Encino, Calif., and only began crawling his way back up from the bottom when he was so down and out that he no longer cared. He sometimes introduced himself to customers with a cheery, "Hi, I'm Alec ... and I'll be touching your food."

Unsurprisingly, he was often close to becoming the waiter-who's-really-unemployed. "The thing is," he told me, "I was a fun waiter. But I was really sloppy. I was always on the verge of being fired. I had the dreaded managerial conference: 'Alec, you're a little slow on the cash register ...'"

He was, however, a quick study when it came to the Pizza Kitchen's smarmy but effective "suggestive serving" method: "Ladies, we have some excellent tiramisu for dessert today ..." Once he had a big triumph: the highest lunch shift receipts, which meant free food for a whole week. Not bad for someone who lied about his waitering background (he had none) to get the job.

He also turned the whole experience -- plus his life up to that point and beyond -- into the one-man stage show, "I Remember Mapa," a tongue-in-cheek look at his Filipino-American journey as a gay, tap-dancing actor under 5-foot-5. "When I was in third grade," he tells the audience, "I wore glasses, a retainer and corrective shoes -- all at the same time. I used to kick my own ass at recess."

As you may surmise, Alec Mapa has done stand-up comedy. But he'd been out of that loop for years when he got the idea for "I Remember Mapa" while reading Julia Cameron's "The Artist's Way." He came to the question: What would you do if you didn't have to do it perfectly? And he realized that what he'd do is perform his own material.

So he booked himself, with a nonrefundable deposit, into a cabaret three months hence. Knowing that he'd have to come up with material, he did. Eventually theater director Chay Yew helped shape the show into the version I just saw for the second time at East/West Players in Hollywood.

Mapa had been, as they say, king of the hill and top of the heap. He understudied B.D. Wong's transvestite Chinese courtesan character in "M. Butterfly" -- finally taking over that role on Broadway, and later in the national touring company. Now 32, he was then still in his 20s and had been earning his living as an actor for a good five years.

The closest he'd come to paying his dues through drudge work had been a stint while very young at a place called Boy Bar. His duties there had included periodically checking the bathrooms to make sure no one was actually having sex or taking drugs. As he recounts in the show: "It was a job that was virtually impossible to do without sounding like somebody's bratty kid sister ... Excuse me, are you guys shooting up in there? You better not be, 'cause I'm TELLING!"

His triumph in "M. Butterfly" had actually begun as a major disappointment, because of course he had hoped to be the star rather than the understudy. Insult was added to injury when Playbill spelled his name "Alec Wapa." The stage managers hung a sign over his dressing room: "Home of the ..."

"See, it's funny now, but back then I wept," he says in the show. "I tried to be really spiritual about it, thinking, 'Don't worry, there'll be another Tony Award-winning role for an Asian drag queen that's meant just for you.' But I couldn't help but feel like I lost out on the opportunity of a lifetime."

Eventually, however, he took over B.D. Wong's role and got a standing ovation the first night. Unfortunately, at the end of the run, three things happened. His boyfriend, who was also a fellow cast member, broke up with him. His business manager, who had also been a friend, stole all his money. And then his mother died, suddenly, of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 53.

Mapa's nervous breakdown took the form of watching TV 18 hours a day until his utilities were shut off. He was still auditioning. But, as he told me, "In New York, once you've been an actor, you are an actor. In Los Angeles, it's, 'Well, what are you doing now?'"

He turns this into a schtick in his show: "In L.A., perception is everything. You are either doing really well, or you don't exist. You can never say to someone, 'I'm not working' or 'I'm unemployed.' You have to say, 'I'm in development.' Or, 'I'm on hiatus.' I once got flustered and said, 'I'm developing a hiatal hernia!' And someone said, 'Oh, really? Who's casting?'"

But the Pizza Kitchen job was, in a way, his salvation. Being so low he no longer cared had one positive side effect: It erased the whiff of desperation that had been tainting his auditions.

"I went from not doing anything to working constantly," he told me, sitting in the theater after one of his performances. "I've kind of built up a really good relationship with casting directors. I become the character when they don't know what they want. They're paying me to be ready. So even if I'm completely wrong for the character, I'm always fully prepared, because they might have something else they think of me for."

This fall, Mapa will appear at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., in Anna Deveare Smith's new show about the press and the presidency. Like all Smith productions, this one is built around actual transcripts and features each actor in multiple roles. Mapa's range from former speech writer Peggy Noonan to New York Times correspondent R.W. "Johnny" Apple.

His many TV appearances include "Seinfeld," "Roseanne," "Melrose Place," "Law and Order" and a recurring role as Angela the lovable transvestite on "NYPD Blue." He knew he had to come in costume for that audition to stand a chance. And as he drove to the audition, in full drag, he prayed, "Oh, God, please don't let me get into an accident."

He started getting so much work he had to -- oh, happy day! -- shed his actor-who-is-really-a-waiter skin. He quit the Pizza Kitchen and morphed back into being just an actor. And a wiser and humbler one, at that.

By Catherine Seipp

Catherine Seipp is a regular contributor to Salon.

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