The Waffle Palace: Smothered, Covered and Scattered 24/7/365
In the south, stereotypes abound. Think "Gone With the Wind," or TV shows like "The Beverly Hillbillies" or "Dukes of Hazzard." Rarely do you see a nuanced portrayal of southern characters that are realistic, funny and sympathetic at the same time.
"The Waffle Palace Smothered Covered & Scattered 24/7/365" at the Horizon Theatre is a triumph. From the first moment, the audience is aware that the main characters (John, Connie, Esperanza, Walter) are not stereotypes at all, but realistic, endearing folks who live and breathe onstage. It’s also very, very funny.
The action takes place at a fast pace, but the intimacy of the tiny theater and the energy of the cast go far in casting a spell on the audience. There is a dizzying array of minor slapstick characters who go on and offstage, but they are all played by just a few actors; Allan Edwards, Lala Cochran, and Eric Mendenhall. The characters they portray are offbeat, and they provide many moments of raucous laughter for the audience.
The story centers on John, the beleaguered owner of the Waffle Palace who sees an alarming drop in business due to heavy construction in his area. Rich developers want to buy the humble diner known as The Waffle Palace and tear it down so they can redevelop the land in a more upscale, profitable way.
John, whose father owned the Waffle Palace before him, doesn’t want to sell. It’s a fairly standard story, but it’s told with imagination and heart. Most of the action takes place in the middle of the night, when oddballs wander into the Waffle Palace regularly.
The Waffle Palace employees use mainly character-driven humor to advance the story and underline their humanity. The first part of the play is taken directly from the headlines, as John has to throw out some rowdy rockers who are causing mayhem in The Waffle Palace.
In 2007, Kid Rock caused mayhem at an Atlanta Waffle House. (Most Southerners have eaten at a Waffle House at some point in their lives. The menu is laminated. There’s always a pot of coffee. You can get waffles and bacon at any time of the day or night. It’s the southern amalgam of a diner and a McDonald’s.)
The action of the play is broken up frequently by short intervals of song and slapstick comedy. There are singers who stroll around singing about the Waffle Palace. There’s the "Waffle Fact Man" who explains to the audience, with great hilarity, the difference between The Waffle Palace and other eating establishments: "If your waiter announces the Daily Specials, you are NOT at a Waffle Palace."
There’s the suburban couple that eats at The Waffle Palace frequently and testify as to its rejuvenating effect on their rather humdrum marriage. There’s the redneck couple that comes in and explains that they found Bigfoot when they were out deer hunting, and they want to display him at The Waffle Palace.
Maria Rodriguez-Sager portrays Esperanza, the newbie waitress at The Waffle Palace. The character is not a Hispanic stereotype, but is a complex individual. At first, Rodriguez-Sager portrays her wide-eyed innocence in an almost Forrest Gump-like fashion, but as the play unfolds we see that Esperanza is actually an intelligent, quick-witted young lady.
For example, as Connie (the older waitress) instructs, Esperanza calls the customers "Baby" and "Honey" but with such non-Southern deliberateness that it’s hilarious. The writing is sharp and surprising, and Rodriguez-Sager turns in a really nuanced and lovely performance.
Special attention must also be given to the remarkably versatile Eric Mendenhall, who plays a dizzying array of characters, including Tommy the evil developer, country singer, Waffle Fact Man, and even a hilarious drag queen. Mendenhall is physically tall and lanky, with a distinct profile, but his inventiveness and versatility make each character believable.
One hilarious moment is when it’s suggested to the drag queen that he wear sensible shoes instead of four-inch stilettos. He replies something like, "I’m a drag queen. If I wore sensible shoes I’d be a lesbian." It isn’t said to be rude or mean. A large contingent of ladies (in sensible shoes) who were sitting in the audience roared with laughter.
Larry Larson, one of the co-writers of the play (along with Eddie Levi Lee), plays John. He is the most square of all the characters, and is the play’s moral center. During the crisis in his business, he doesn’t lay off his workers -- he gives them small raises and reassurance. He is not a saint, but he’s realistic and the ringleader of the mayhem without being judgmental.
I loved "The Waffle Palace" and I urge everyone to go see it and support The Horizon Theatre. You will have a fantastic experience that you won’t soon forget.
"The Waffle Palace Smothered Covered & Scattered 24/7/365" runs through July 1 at the Horizon Theater, 1083 Austin Avenue Northeast in Atlanta. For info or tickets call 404-584-7450 or visit www.horizontheatre.com