One of the scene-stealers of “The Waffle Palace,” at the Horizon Theatre through July 1, is the scenery. Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay’s splendid set design captures the real-life Waffle House right down to every last plastic menu, napkin dispenser and steak sauce bottle. It’s outrageously detailed and deliciously well observed, and it even seems to spill out into the audience: those seated in the front row are actually sitting at Waffle Palace booths and tables. It’s the type of set that audience members wander onto after the show, then read the “lost pet” posters tacked to the walls, look through the songs on the jukebox and take pictures of themselves to post on Facebook.
The show itself is likewise charming and inviting, but overall the plot seems too static, and its recipes too simple and familiar, for the whole thing to really get cooking as it should. Waffle Palace owner John (Larry Larson) doesn’t want to sell his place to developers, no matter what the offer. His father owned the diner before him, and he’s grown attached to the cooks and waitresses, not to mention the crowd of irregular regulars who gather there at all hours.
Between scenes, we often get little flights of fancy: monologues from comic characters about the Waffle Palace, some facts and figures from a professorial Waffle Fact Man, country songs that seek to explain the enduring appeal of the place. Especially funny and surreal is a scene in which a customer new to the Waffle Palace utters the dreaded “p” word and orders pancakes. Yes, the walls bleed and the earth shakes. Don’t ever try it.
Actress Lala Cochran chomps into some of the female character roles with sharpness, wit and energy. Her cop and redneck woman are both weird delights. On the other end of the spectrum, Marguerite Hannah does a splendid job serving up a touching, verité portrait of waitress Connie: every line and each inflection is deliciously well rendered.
But it’s clear from the beginning that John won’t sell the place, and it remains clear throughout the show. The real estate agents are persistent, but it still doesn’t make for enough real conflict to hang a plot on. And in the end, the heroes seem too virtuous and innocent, the villains too villainous, and the whole thing is smothered and covered with an easy sort of nostalgia. The tropes are familiar: real estate developers are bad, cheeky Southern waitresses are good, and so on. And it even ends with that staple of easy, familiar endings: a wedding.
The playwrights themselves call their style “children’s theater for adults.” I’m more of a “children’s theater for children, adult theater for adults” audience member myself. Still, it’s all done with energy and commitment by the talented cast, and those who went along for the ride on the night I was there seemed to be having a good time. “The Waffle Palace” is a bit like a late-night trip to the place it celebrates: an easy-to-eat mixture of the funny, familiar, corny, nostalgic and odd. If that’s your bowl of grits, your order is ready and waiting at the Horizon, hon.