11/29/2019 WAFFLE PALACE CHRISTMAS Horizon Theatre
CATCHING THE SPIRIT
(Pre-Press Opening Alert: Once again, I (accidentally) signed up to usher a Horizon show prior to its official Press Opening. So, in that spirit, I will refrain from quibbling about any technical glitches, which were too few to remember anyway, and concentrate on the play itself. BTW, to my eyes, the performances were more than “ready for prime time.”)
So, last year, Larry Larson and Eddie Levi Lee cooked up a delightful Holiday surprise, Waffle Palace Christmas. This year, they have made some rewrites, added some gags, tightened the focus, and served it up again. The result is a pleasure that goes down as easily as a diner’s free coffee refill.
So, let me start by plagiarizing my own “background” material from last year’s review:
Way back in 2014, I really wasn’t in the mood for Waffle Palace, Larry Larson and Eddie Levi Lee’s light-as-a-biscuit tribute to Southern Hospitality and the denizens of a small family-run Atlanta eatery (strangely similar to a certain mega-outlet national franchise, which shall here remain nameless) I took the script to task in one of my last “D” reviews, and have avoided its recurrences like so many fried plates of smothered salmonella. But now, the duo has put their stamp on a new holiday offering, Waffle Palace Christmas, and it is much more digestible than its predecessor, and, more to the point, it caught me in the right mood to enjoy.
While remaining true to the spirit of their original – an overarching lack of serious intent coupled with a true affection for their characters – Larson and Lee have this time constructed a more compelling through-line plot structure, giving us a tongue-in-cheek story of the near-forgotten (apologies to my Netherspawn friend Charlie Close) Christmas demon Krampus and his efforts to ruin the Christmas season for the Waffle Palace-ians. But, grumpy John notwithstanding, their cheerful outlook on life is more than a match for the demon – apparently his lackluster “demon skills” are reason # 1 for him falling off the Top Demons List.
Along the way, we meet the requisite returnees from before – John and his (now) partner Connie, Nicaraguan-Jewish waitress Esperanza, now happily married and drop-any-second pregnant, and a few of the old familiar faces (some played by new actors). We have new folks – Connie’s nephew Deandre, an aspiring Tech geek trying to master the grill (“This is the grill?”). Alex, a “permanent” fixture with her open laptop and quizzical nature. Dave, a guy living on the roof. And, for good measure, a few “upscale” guests from the quickly gentrifying neighborhood. They all have stories that interrelate far better than the original scattershot approach, and they are all appealing (and NOT-so-stereotyped) in their own way,
Okay the show begins and ends with a song that is quickly forgettable, but that is more than compensated by a mid-show “Twelve Days of Christmas” that is cut off too soon by that dastardly Krampus. This year, Grumpy John seems better-developed than last – his overriding characteristic being an understandable fear of technological modernization, but a few idiosyncratic embellishments have made him more than simple, “Okay, Boomer” bait. And he and Connie remain nice sparring partners, and their spats and squabbles are more enjoyable than they have any right to be.
Much of my enjoyment again comes courtesy of Rob Cleveland, who tears into the role of Krampus with a joy and skill that is delightful to behold. He chews the scenery with relish, wallowing in the joy of being bad, a Richard III for the “Shakespeare who?” crowd. Frequently addressing us directly, he far too often makes us willing co-conspirators in his nefarious plans and makes us occasionally cheer for his small successes. And, this year, he showed remarkable good taste by making my own tacky holiday sweater an object of scorn (sitting in the front row does have its risks).
But good spirits will win all the time, especially at Christmastime and especially in Atlanta. Every time Krampus sets the characters back a step, he inadvertently gives them cause to advance two steps. The “happy ending” is inevitable, and the path getting there is lined with good will and good cheer and good food. Returning from the original production (and last year) Maria Rodriguez-Sager as Esperanza, and, as before, she is terrific. Allan Edwards and Lala Cochran also return, segueing from role to role as easily as picking from a plastic-covered menu. They are joined by “newcomers” Megan Hayes as Alex (actually a returning Horizon favorite in a welcome return to Atlanta), Brenda Porter as a strong-willed and driven Connie, and Dai’Sean L. Garrett (Deandre and Dave), adding layers to an already-rich concoction. And making a welcome return to the the central role of John is co-author Larry Larson, and he brings to the character a wealth of old-and-bitter without losing that essential core of fresh-and-decent.
Like so often before, Isabel and Mariah Curley-Clay have designed and built a diner set that is so realistically detailed you can almost smell the bacon. And Maranda DeBusk has designed lighting that hits every color, every mood perfectly, alternating between typical diner overheads and imaginative reds for Krampus’s excursions from the underworld.
So, once again I was much more “in the spirit” of the Waffle Palace. Maybe I’ve gotten older and kinder, maybe I’ve been in the south long enough to appreciate a Valentine to its “regulars,” more likely, Larson and Lee just wrote (and rewrote) a script more to my liking.
I’m STILL not longing to re-watch the original. But I have been going to Waffle House (and enjoying ir) much more than in 2014. Small victories keeping the Krampus at bay!
-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #htcWAFFLECHRISTMAS)