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Wayne Lemon’s off-kilter comedy “Jesus Hates Me” gets off to a promising start.

In the first scene, we meet the middle-aged Annie (Priscilla Young-Anker), who stands at center stage and casts a long, wordless glance up at a stormy sky before retreating into her house. Then we meet Ethan (Matt Kindley), a former high school football star in his restless mid-20s, and his best friend Trane (Bryan Figueroa), a black cop stuck at the bottom of the totem pole because of his skin color.

As Ethan and Trane talk in amusing circles about their frustrating lives in the small Texas town they’ve both been cursed to inhabit, the landscape of the play begins to take shape. Ethan, who lives with his bipolar mother, Annie, and helps her operate a Christian-themed miniature golf course in a constant state of disrepair, has convinced himself that Jesus has it out for him.

He wants to run away from his increasingly unstable mother, from the screamingly conservative mentality of neighbors like the dim-witted Boone (Anthony Alcocer) and, finally, from a past that has caused him nothing but pain and sadness.

By the time introductions are out of the way, all indications are this will be a play to sink your teeth into. And in some ways, from the snap of Lemon’s comic writing for Boone to the full-fledged characterizations of people like the frighteningly unhinged Annie, it is.

But because Lemon’s writing descends so freely and so often into cliché-riddled diatribes, the emotional impact the piece earned for itself soon becomes blunted beyond any use. Most of those overwritten diatribes come from Ethan, who in his complaints about living in his “own special hell,” seems more like a spokesperson for someone else’s frustrations than the believable voice of his own.

By the time Ethan embroils himself in a drunken wrestling match with a mannequin version of Christ – the symbolism just drips from the stage – Lemon has lost his grip on things. Which is too bad, because this play seems just a couple of rewrites away from being excellent. Even his hokey invocation of Nietzsche, the philosopher who famously declared that God is dead, has potential that the play ends up squandering.

What’s a lot closer to excellent is the cast assembled by director Michael Lodick. It features a compelling performance from Young-Anker as Annie, which does not succumb to the flights of fancy to which lesser actors playing mentally ill characters are susceptible.

Alcocer is appealing as the theatrically ignorant Boone, whom we meet in the midst of a speech about how all Northern men are gay. He has recently been fired from his job, for which he gives this reason: “Technically, I might have blown up a dog.” Alcocer, who joyfully overacted his way through the role of Dracula in the entertaining but problematic musical “The Dead English” last year, does the same here. And the effect is just right.

Though Kindley’s performance can be grating from time to time, it does manage to capture a sense of what it means to be frustrated and directionless in one’s mid-20s. (He’s had practice in that archetype, in Justin Karcher’s “Men of Like Passions” last spring.) Alternately amusing and sensitive performances also come from Maura Nola as the owner of a townie bar and Jacob Kahn as the meek Georgie, who speaks through an artificial larynx after wounding himself in a suicide attempt.

Lemon deserves credit for his attempt to transpose the classic, universal tale of a young man struggling to break free from the traditions and strictures of his upbringing in a small Texas town. He came close to doing so. But in the end, his own words got in the way.

review

2 and 1/2 stars

What: “Jesus Hates Me”

When: Through Feb. 7

Where: American Repertory Theatre of Western New York, 16 Linwood Ave.

Tickets: $15 to $20

Info: 634-1102 or www.artofwny.org

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com