Theater review: Horizon's "Waffle Palace" lacks sizzle

Larson and Lee’s fictional Waffle Palace is a greasy spoon known for crunchy hash browns, saucy waitresses, a yellow-and-black décor and late-night debauchery. It is based of course on that beloved, Atlanta-based institution of salt and syrup known as the Waffle House.

In “The Waffle Palace: Smothered, Covered & Scattered 24/7/365,” which is having its world premiere at Horizon Theatre in Little Five Points, the playwrights pour an uneven stream of gonzo ribaldry laced with sweet nostalgia. As Waffle Palace owner John (played by Larson) faces a Mephistophelian struggle with real estate developers, his eatery becomes not just a magnet for weirdos, lonely hearts and colorful characters of all kinds, but a symbol of a vanishing community — neighborhoods subsumed by soulless big boxes and tall towers.

In the runny, under-cooked first act, a storyline emerges from a series of riffs and a couple songs. We meet longtime waitress Connie (Marguerite Hannah), her waffles-and-Jesus-loving son Walter (Enoch King) and fresh-faced Esperanza (Maria Rodriguez-Sager). The latter is a Nicaraguan immigrant with a tin ear for the flirtatious banter of her trade; speaking in a caricature of an accent, she manages to enchant her patrons nonetheless.

Larson, Hannah and Rodriguez-Sager’s performances are rather one note, and throughout the play, you feel the authors struggle to pack in every outrageous Waffle House anecdote they've read  in the paper (rowdy rockers, Taser-happy cops, a wedding, a birth) — plus a mixed bag of gags of their own invention (their trademark chainsaw, a mysterious hairy “corpse,” references to everything from Occupy Wall Street to “Raisin in the Sun”).

But in Act 2, something magical happens. The forced feeling disappears, and glimmers of Shakespearean farce and the playful alchemy of Sarah Ruhl emerge from spew of cheap laughs. (Theater-goers may also recognize traces of “Superior Donuts,” Tracy Letts’ most gentle play, which Horizon produced last year.)

While King and Allan Edwards are uniformly good throughout the show, Eric Mendenhall’s nebbish, unemployable Ralphie, his Waffle Fact Man, and his drag queen Vivien are superb. This actor is one of Atlanta's top comedians. LaLa Cochran is not bad, either. Her turn as Castle, the Little Red Riding Hood meets Joan Crawford she-devil developer, is a delight.

On the design side, Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay contribute a wonderful approximation of a waffle joint (yellow vinyl booths, grease-splattered kitchen, plastic menus). Their costumes, from camouflage to wedding gowns, are pretty amazing, too.

As directed by Lisa and Jeff Adler, the play waffles between scrambled mess and indelible zaniness. Themes of May-September romance and neighborhoods disappearing in the name of progress are hardly original. Where "Waffle House" really pops is in the ridiculousness of its characters.

When Ralphie orders his eggs, he tries to explain to Esperanza that he wants them shirred, not scrambled. That’s kind of how I feel about the “Waffle Palace. ” It needs a delicate and sensitive hand, a little more time in the toaster, before it truly nourishes the heart.

Theater review

“The Waffle Palace: Smothered, Covered & Scattered 24/7/365”

Grade: B-

8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays. 3 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays. 5 p.m. Sundays. Through July 1. $20-$40. Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave., Atlanta. 404-584-7450; horizontheatre.com

Bottom line: More fizzle than sizzle.

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