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Could it be ... Satan?

Dad's Garage grapples with the nature of evil in new comedy

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Winner of the International Playwright's Bonanza at Dad's Garage, Roberto Aguirre-Saccasa's Say You Love Satan seeks to examine the nature of evil in the genre of a supernatural romance. It combines a fanciful premise suitable to an early Woody Allen short story with witty observations of social mores reminiscent of plays by Steve Murray. While it may not answer, or even ask, all the Big Questions it's interested in, it still proves a wry, even thoughtful comedy that's seldom glib.

Soon after we meet Andrew (Dan Triandiflou), a gay graduate student studying Russian literature, he finds himself torn between two men who seem too good to be true, in entirely different ways. He's been seeing Jerrod (John Fischer), a young doctor and perpetual volunteer who's so decent, selfless and forgiving he can makes anyone feel gross and unworthy.

But Jack (Tim Cordier) is cut from entirely different cloth. After a chance encounter at a Laundromat, Andrew learns that Jack has read Dostoyevsky in Russian, can get anyone into any club and seems to live life to the fullest. But Andrew begins to wonder why Jack has a birthmark in the shape of three sixes, a video collection consisting of the Omen and Evil Dead trilogies and a pronounced limp at sunrise.

Sitting on a crimson sofa and listening to Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil Blues," Jack eventually admits to being the progeny of Satan himself, although he's quick to point out that he's a prodigal son.

"How can you possibly think this won't end badly?" asks Andrew's best friend Marge (Anne Towns). Andrew and Jack continue seeing each other, even though Jack reveals a fiery temper and such sinister secrets that we suspect the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

For much of the play, Andrew and Jack's relationship seems to offer a metaphor of temptation. Jack figuratively brings out the devil in Andrew, turning him toward hedonism and away from the goodness of Marge and Jerrod. He even starts shoplifting and making crank phone calls. Aguirre-Saccasa constructs clever encounters with each of the lovers' exes, Andrew's trendy, disdainful Gabe (Z. Gillispie, amusingly bitchy) and Jack's angelic Raphael (John Benzinger, boomingly celestial).

But during the second act, Say You Love Satan conspicuously changes gears, taking on a plot akin to an occult film from Jack's video collection. The mechanics of the story hold together, and sharp wisecracks continue throughout, but it's still a bit of a letdown, seeing a pointed play turn into a mundane movie. The script would benefit from pruning some of its pop references, some of which get big laughs (Andrew remarks that, with Jack's magic, "It's like going out with Harry Potter -- only hot!"), others of which seem already dated.

Cordier gives Jack a suitably dangerous charisma, while Triandiflou credibly plays an ordinary guy on the horns of an extraordinary dilemma. But the production doesn't always bring out as much of the other characters as it could. When Andrew asks Jerrod why he volunteers to care for premature infants, he calls Jerrod's reply the closest he ever came to losing his temper. But Fischer's reading of the dialogue is about as beatific as a saint -- his temperature scarcely seems to budge. Similarly, Towns gets plenty of laughs from Marge's peevishness, but the character comes across as a cliche of a smart-talking single gal.

Directed by Sean Daniels, Say You Love Satan debuted the week of Sept. 11, and it coincidentally mentions an "Afghan restaurant." Rather than detract from Satan's snappy humor, the fresh memories of an actual tragedy help bring the play's discussion of evil into sharper relief. In a different climate, it could come across as shallow, but instead it seems surprisingly profound.

Say You Love Satan includes discussions of Dostoyevsky and slide projections of historic devil drawings. Despite the mood those touches cultivate, it's ultimately easier to identify with the subtle, everyday evil of Andrew mistreating his loved ones than the diabolism of Jack's hidden scheme. While the play mostly lives up to its ambitions of grappling with evil in the abstract, and grinning while doing it, Say You Love Satan is best at sweating the small stuff.

Say You Love Satan plays through Oct. 20 at Dad's Garage Theatre Company, 280 Elizabeth St., at 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 5 p.m. Sun. $15. 404-523-3141. www.dadsgarage.com.

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