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Theater Review - Sentimental syrup nearly drowns The Waffle Palace

Horizon Theatre ode to Waffle House is scattered and smothered

Horizon Theatre doesn't particularly try to disguise the fact that its world premiere play The Waffle Palace is about the Waffle House, the dirt-cheap staple of Southern breakfasts for more than half a century. The production's Waffle Palace sign has the same font and black-on-yellow color scheme, and the superfluous subtitle, "Smothered, Covered & Scattered 24/7/365" refers to the Waffle House's serving options for hash browns and hours of operation, respectively.

It would be a shame if playwrights Larry Larson and Eddie Levi Lee changed the name out of a concern for legal action, because it's hard to imagine a more positive advertisement for Waffle House than the comedy. The Waffle Palace relentlessly promotes the idea of the old-school eatery as a bastion of Southern hospitality and a sanctuary for round-the-clock breakfast service. Larson and Lee push equally hard to establish the virtues of the play's specific location, a Midtown Atlanta Waffle Palace losing its customer base to incessant construction and the closure of the 14th Street bridge.

The Waffle Palace hammers the idea of the restaurant as a neighborhood landmark, where the staff and regulars are closer than family. Directed by Jeff and Lisa Adler, the scattershot comedy offers perfunctory storylines but seems more energized by its madcap digressions, including a country tune, a tango, an audience sing-a-long, and a cameo from a famous monster. It's like The Waffle Palace would rather sell the sizzle than the steak and eggs.

At times the production uses larger-than-life theatrical gimmicks to embellish real Waffle House incidents. The play opens in the immediate aftermath of the staff kicking out a group of riotous musicians, then later flashes back to show the actual brouhaha. Inspired by the 2009 case of Gwinnett County police officers who Tasered a Waffle House employee, Eric Mendenhall and Lala Cochran perform a labored rap song about their misdeeds.

The play's action takes place over several nights on the graveyard shift. In addition to the owner John (Larson), the staff includes a bubbly new server (Maria Rodriguez-Sager), a warm-hearted veteran waitress (Marguerite Hannah) and her son (Enoch King), a short order cook with ambitions to open his own church. It's hard to know what's the bigger cliché — John resisting pressure to sell out to a rapacious developer, or a plot thread involving the staff and lottery tickets.

The play also includes a mismatched romance between the young waitress and a middle-aged professor turned garbage man (Allan Edwards). Despite the play's themes of love, family, and respect for the past, the sentimental material seems an uncomfortable fit with Larson and Lee's sense of showmanship. A playwriting duo dating back to the Southern Theatre Conspiracy company of the 1980s, the pair has a more prankish sensibility, exemplified by the chainsaws characters wield in nearly all of their plays (including this one). The best gag of the night comes in the form of an apocalyptic response to a newcomer's request for "pancakes."

The Waffle Palace's cast gave fully committed performances and kept the audience thoroughly entertained the night I attended. At times the broadness of the acting, full of anguished accents and childish behavior, seemed to compensate for the predictable storylines.

Apart from tweaking obvious targets, including blandly upbeat suburbanites and obsessive hunters, the play seems built on a false premise. The staff and regulars bemoan closure of John's Waffle Palace, an establishment in his family for nearly 50 years. But it's not like it's the only place of its kind, in the play or in reality: Waffle House has more than 1,500 restaurants in 25 states. The "restaurant locator" function on the Waffle House website instantly identified 16 places in my area.

Atlanta deserves Larson and Lee's criticisms as a city of ceaseless development and contempt for its own heritage. In Waffle Palace, however, there's something odd about characters complaining at length about the prospect of a bland, soulless corporate complex paving over a restaurant that belongs to a chain famous for the uniformity of its design and customer service. A "Waffle Palace" isn't the same as a genuine independently owned greasy spoon like the Majestic Diner. This discrepancy wouldn't be so noticeable if The Waffle Palace's other ingredients came together, but instead, the meal deserves to be sent back to the cooks.



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