The idea of a seemingly perfect child who is really evil incarnate is an effectively chilling ploy, as "The Bad Seed" illustrated when it was first produced in 1954. Since then the device has been used in horror Theater films and television shows, and the phrase "bad seed" has almost attained the rank of cliche'.

But while the idea may be evergreen, the play, written by Maxwell Anderson from a novel by William March, is not, as a production currently running at the King's Jester Dinner Theater demonstrates. This is a formulaic play, written before realism flowered, in which the lines serve as announcements of plot developments and clues to the mystery are so obvious they might as well be written on a sign.

All the little tricks of foreshadowing, the characters who are types rather than people, and the predictable moments of suspense in "The Bad Seed" are reminiscent of standard TV fare. In 1954 it was hot stuff; today it seems awkward and artificial.

Given the problems inherent in such a work, it would take an extraordinary production to breathe life into it. This one never rises above the level of competence, although there are moments that begin to ignite. Betsy Nuell as the bereaved mother of The Bad Seed's second victim teeters on the brink of mawkishness but never falls in, providing some of the evening's few touching moments. And Diane Cord as the oversized and nosy upstairs neighbor gives us an interesting character you'd enjoy sitting down and gossiping with.

Thirteen-year-old Kit Noonan is convincingly bratty as Rhoda, but the character seems abnormal to start with, thus reducing the impact of the discovery that she is really an amoral killer. Dianne Couves as her mother wears a perpetually worried expression that doesn't change as she goes from mild suspicion to horrible realization.

Director Norman Aronovic, who also plays the small part of the father, has kept things cooking at a good pace. What is lacking is the fine edge of terror.

The dinner buffet included roast turkey breast, veal stroganoff, Polynesian meatballs, flounder, Chateaubriand and coq au vin.

"The Bad Seed," by Maxwell Anderson, from a novel by William March, directed by Norman Aronovic, set by Don Gardiner and Lee Mills, costumes by Pat Emerson, with Kit Noonan, Norman Aronovic, Dianne Couves, Diane Cord, Robert Redlinger, Tom Adair, Fiona Macdonald, Richard Salamanca, Betsy Nuell, Art Ward and Bob Tron.

At the King's Jester Dinner Theater Friday, Saturday and Sunday through May 9.