Here’s hoping that Ben Thorpe doesn’t have any plans to quit his so-called “day job” as one of Atlanta’s most engaging actors (“Hand to God” at the Alliance, Theatrical Outfit’s “Big Fish,” “Falsettos” at Actor’s Express).
The first-time playwright’s horror-comedy “Babyshower for the Antichrist” is one of two premieres in Essential Theatre’s annual summer play festival, as this year’s co-winner of the company’s Georgia playwriting award (with Emily McClain’s “Slaying Holofernes”). The shows alternate performances through Aug. 25 at the West End Performing Arts Center.
Too silly to be very scary, Thorpe’s 75-minute play is something of a mess. Rather aimlessly directed by Shannon Eubanks (who fared much better at the helm of Essential’s hip “Lillian Likes It” a few years back), it takes place at a rustic lake house “somewhere in the South,” where a small group of devil worshipers has gathered for the titular occasion — replete with animal sacrifices and a particularly unappetizing “hell feast.”
The cast includes a couple of familiar faces from earlier Essential productions. Suzanne Roush (so good in 2014’s “Ravens & Seagulls”) plays their presumably fearful leader, Reba, and Gina Rickicki (who appeared in 2016’s splendid “When Things Are Lost”) is Dee, her smitten second-in-command.
Along with another dimwitted accomplice, Shelley (Taylor Bahin), an ex-con who’s prone to seeing visions and hearing voices that no one else can, are basically holding hostage the expectant mother, Monica (Sarina Montgomery), until her best friend Julie (Madison Welch) arrives on the scene, suspecting foul play and looking to rescue her.
Thorpe’s nonsensical comedic premise doesn’t mesh particularly well with eventual attempts to get serious with a few convoluted backstories. One of them involves a falling-out between Julie and Monica over an old boyfriend and vague references to a possible rape. Another concerns Reba’s fall from grace as a substance-abuse counselor and her loss of faith after she crashes her car into the side of a church, killing a couple of passengers.
Production values have never been a strong suit for the economically budgeted Essential. In this instance, Gabrielle Stephenson’s scenic design is a cut above the norm (dig that fireplace), and lighting designer Harley Gould and sound designer Kacie Willis collaborate effectively on a few supernatural flourishes here and there.
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Under the guidance of founding artistic director Peter Hardy, the 20-year-old company’s primary focus has always been on finding and fostering local playwrights by giving them an opportunity to have their work realized on stage. Some of the shows are invariably more successful than others, but it’s an admirable endeavor, for better or worse.
In the case of “Babyshower for the Antichrist,” maybe it’s true what they say about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.
“Babyshower for the Antichrist”
Through Aug. 25 (in rotating repertory with “Slaying Holofernes”). 8 p.m. Aug. 5, 8, 10, 17, 20 and 22-23; 2 p.m. Aug. 11 and 25; 7 p.m. Aug. 18; 10 a.m. Aug. 23. $10-$25. West End Performing Arts Center, 945 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd. SW, Atlanta. essentialtheatre.com.
Bottom line: A bit of a botch.
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