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"Noises Off' plays well on its bad side

For as long as we've had theater, playwrights have written about their own line of work. They especially like to tell audiences how awful theater can be. In Hamlet, Shakespeare rails against "overdone" actors and then sets the standard for the "play within a play." And in one of the funniest works ever written about bad theater, British playwright Michael Frayn sets the comic standard for the play behind a play.

Noises Off, which debuted in 1982, is hauling in audiences at the Largo Cultural Center. Wherever it's staged, the show is generally a crowd-pleaser, with its, by now, well-known plot device; the stage turns completely around in the second act, and the audience watches from the actors' point of view.

Frayn's plot is based on the simple concept that exceptionally bad theater is hilarious _ but only when you're in on the joke. The show opens at a final dress rehearsal for a vapid British farce. There we meet the actors, a bunch of prima donnas and airheads playing stock characters. As we learn more about the cast's internal love affairs and personality conflicts, the seeds of chaos are sown.

A frantic, almost entirely mimed Act 2 takes place several weeks later in the dimly lit backstage area, revealed by a rotating set designed by the book by Charles T. Parsons. While the audience hears the same first act, we see the drama unfold from backstage, where jealousies and egos collide in slap-stick mayhem.

The Eight O'Clock Theater, in residence at the center, features a relatively strong cast of amateur actors. The play doesn't require skill so much as stamina to muscle through the arduous physical comedy.

In Saturday's performance, the ensemble connected the most when the sweat was flying. When it wasn't, mainly during the chitchatty first act, the timing was off just enough to evoke only minimal laughter. Enhanced by nicely rendered performances by Fadi Akhtar, Susan Demers, Ken Rich and Kat Christie, the cast rallied in the end, though, closing the show to peals of laughter.

Director Bill Lelbach, former artistic director of the Tampa Players, strives for excellence in Noises Off, a relatively difficult show to direct and produce. Thankfully, his expertise pays off because there's nothing funny about a bad play about a bad play.