By Manning Harris

Since 1999, the Essential Theatre Play Festival has presented 25 new works by Georgia authors, some of whom have gone on to national prominence.

This year’s winner is “Lillian Likes It,” by Conyers native Joshua Mikel, who is a graduate of Florida State University’s Theatre and Creative Writing program. He is already a published playwright; the world premiere of “Lillian” will run through Aug. 23 in repertory with Natalia Naman’s “The Old Ship of Zion.”

“Lillian Likes It” hones in on the digital-social media-internet world which we all inhabit, like it or not, and the power it gives us as well as the faux human intimacy.

Some Atlanta theatregoers will remember Carlos Murillo’s “dark play or stories for boys,” which Actor’s Express produced a few years ago. In that play a precocious teenager creates a fictional online identity and proceeds to mess with people’s lives, including his own, in dark, terrifying ways.

“Lillian’s” tone is not so dark; there is more energetic playfulness here, but there are still unsettling, disturbing possibilities which can quite easily creep you out.

Take Lillian (Alyssa Caputo), a feisty young woman who has a perfectly nice fiancé named Ernie (Tyler Hayes). However, she’s utterly fascinated to discover her dead friend Larry was secretly in love with her. She probably wouldn’t have known if Babs (Antonia LaChé), the deceased Larry’s fiancée, hadn’t revealed this information to Lillian. Now Babs hotly resents any involvement that Larry and Lillian may have had.

But the fun is just beginning: There’s this new online service called Lazarus which creates one’s profile and personality from everyone who knew him (in this case, Larry). So Lillian can hook up with Lazarus and text away with the dead Larry to her heart’s content. And strange as it seems, this is where her heart is leading her, even though she has a live fiancé.

Lillian’s best friend Lynne (Christine Vozniak) tells her, “The guy is dead; Ernie is not!” The course of true love never did run smooth.

Lillian works at a coffee shop, and her coworker Knife (Pat Young) is sort of blackmailing her because he caught her being less than polite with a customer, and has it all on cell phone video.

There are two scrims on either side of the stage behind which a veritable Greek chorus of texting onliners gives us a play-by-play description of the action: “Lillian unfriends.” “Lillian searches.” “Lillian likes it.” It may sound simplistic, but all this digibabble, as writer Tom Wolfe calls it, becomes very amusing, and playwright Mikel is very dexterous with snappy, witty dialogue for these essentially one-dimensional people.

Shannon Eubanks deftly directs all this macabre frivolity with staging that moves easily and fluidly all over the playing area. The acting is at a high level; Mikel is well served by this cast.

Will Lillian be able to loose her attachment to the dead Larry? She gets advice from his surviving twin brother Ed (Ben Silver plays both, very well).

Of course the larger question becomes how are we, the computer-literate audience, doing in a world where the need for human contact is omnipresent? I just read an article revealing how the hookup culture has now collided with dating apps like Tinder, Hinge, and Happn: “At a Manhattan sports bar called Stout, everyone is Tindering.” I don’t even know what that means.

Plenty of people do, however. I predict the audience for Joshua Mikel’s play will grow and grow.

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Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.