Comic ‘Waffle Palace' stirs in some unexpected ingredients

A funny thing happened to the comedy "The Waffle Palace: Smothered, Covered & Scattered 24/7/365″ on its way to this weekend's world premiere at Horizon Theatre: It got deeper, a little more dramatic, even a bit poignant.

Not to say this latest collaboration between longtime Atlanta wild spirits Larry Larson and Eddie Levi Lee doesn't lock in on the funny bone. Inspired by a series of head-scratching, headline-making incidents at scattered metro Waffle House locations -- including an employee being Tasered by a police officer, the macing of a naked customer and a post-concert melee involving Kid Rock, his posse and a fellow diner -- "Waffle Palace" has little in common with Shakespearean tragedy.

The idea for the play came to Larson after he read a 2009 AJC story recounting various misadventures at the fluorescent-lit chain with its familiar egg-yolk-yellow and black color scheme. Its headline: "Eatery seems like weirdness magnet."

"I just went, ‘You couldn’t make this stuff up and put it in one place,’" recounted the playwright-actor who also performs what he calls "improvisational theater" every weekday as the well-modulated morning drive host on AM 1690/The Voice of the Arts.

Larson mentioned his file of spicy Waffle House clippings while talking to students at Horizon's New South Young Playwrights Festival in 2009, and Horizon co-artistic director Lisa Adler noted she, too, had been saving those articles. Momentum started gaining like cholesterol after a middle-of-the-night snack when Larson phoned favorite conspirator Lee, who had recently moved back to his hometown after a nearly 20-year stint in Seattle.

But those anticipating a double order of, um, toasted humor may be in for a bit of a surprise, said Adler, who is co-directing with her husband, Jeff.

"Where I originally thought it was going to be a bunch of linked sketches, it has become not a bunch of linked sketches," she said. "People expecting it to be all wild and crazy, it’s not. There is over-the-top kind of stuff, but it’s a story with a lot of heart in it."

Those who've followed the work of prolific cut-ups Larson and Lee through 22 or 23 scripts -- depending on if you count that unproduced one about Bigfoot that neither seems to have a copy of anymore -- perhaps should have seen that coming. They specialize in what they call "children's theater for adults," and have since the late Frank Wittow paired the then-young turks to work on children's shows at the old Academy Theatre nearly 40 years ago.

Larson compares their best scripts to riding a roller-coaster. "We take people very, very far in the way of comedy, but also see how far we can take them in terms of the reality or the drama of the play," he explained. "You can’t stay there for too long, but what can you get away with, and how can you get people to go with you? Because it makes the whole experience so much more interesting if you don’t know what’s around the next corner."

Commissioned and developed as part of Horizon's New South Play Festival, "Waffle Palace" had the benefit of numerous public readings and workshops that dished up heaping helpings of feedback. And what audiences liked were the bends in the roller-coaster where Larson and Lee explored the relationships between the diner's characters and staff -- a motley mix of Southern-fried types and melting pot Atlanta. Seven actors -- including Larson as embattled owner John Pickett and Atlanta acting aces LaLa Cochran,  Allan Edwards and Marguerite Hannah -- handle 22 roles.

So what started out as a musical more than 20 rewrites ago, and still retains some musical interludes, became more about the habitues of an open-all-night Midtown greasy spoon that is threatened to be swallowed up as part of construction of a super-sized mixed-use development. Any resemblance to the Silver Skillet on 14th Street and Atlantic Station, Larson confessed, is hardly coincidental.

Adding that dramatic twist allowed the playwrights -- who complete each others' sentences and sometimes talk over each other like characters in a Robert Altman movie -- to riff on the importance of community in a city where change is never on the back burner no matter the economy.

"They tear down things with souls and build soulless things," Lee lamented.

To which Larson instantly added, "And then they figure out how to make it funky, when funky was already there."

Given that take on going-going-gone Atlanta, the two found comfort in late morning or lunchtime rewrite sessions at a Waffle House that's walking distance from Lee's Buckhead home. Shockingly, nothing shocking ever happened -- no customers getting maced or waitresses winning the lottery.

"But we were really able to see the different characters working [and different regulars dining] at different times," Larson said, "and one particular waitress was a research font." As a tip of the visor, they wrote her into the script as "Joann on the day shift."

By contrast, her bosses at corporate headquarters in Norcross have been a little more reticent in response to Horizon's repeated attempts to reach out and perhaps bring them aboard as a sponsor or just to sell pre-show waffles.

"We have been in touch with them in multiple ways," Adler acknowledged, "and they say, ‘We know about the play.’"

ONSTAGE

"The Waffle Palace: Smothered, Covered & Scattered 24/7/365″

Opening Friday through June 24. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. $20-$40. Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-584-7450, www.horizontheatre.com.

MMMM, WAFFLES!

To pique theater-goers' appetites in more ways than one during "Waffle Palace's" run, Horizon Theatre will be selling Sublime Doughnuts' especially made maple pecan and chocolate waffle doughnuts. Also, the Nana G's Chicken & Waffles food truck will be preparing its favorites outside Horizon on May 19 and June 23, 5-8 p.m.

HOW LARSON, LEE COOK TOGETHER

Larry Larson and Eddie Levi Lee have co-written 23 plays, including published and nationally produced titles such as "Tent Meeting" and "Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends: A Final Evening with the Illuminati," and somehow remained buddies. In their own script-like words, here's how they said they make the collaboration click:

Larson: "A lot about the overall structure and ideas come to me, in terms of imagining what the play could be, from the onset. But Eddie's got a gift for comedic dialogue that goes beyond what I can do. I kind of rely on him to take my overwriting... [and compress it]."

Lee: "When Larry sends a scene for me to tweak, I don't so much rewrite as edit."

Larson: "And I usually say 'Brilliant!' when he's done. The amazing thing, and maybe it's because of the connection we established so many years ago ... is now we kind of improvise in our heads [together], and it's a natural sort of flow. I don't think we've ever had a serious argument."

Lee: "The secret to a collaboration like this is there's absolutely no ego. I've never said, and never heard Larry say, 'Well, why are you taking my stuff out?' It's a trust thing."