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A pulp-fiction author arrives at a Catskill hotel, which is closed for the winter season, bent on churning out a novel in 24 hours to win a wager with the establishment's owner. Chaos reigns supreme as liars, bumblers, crooks, and murderers arrive nonstop. You now know the salient plot points penned by showman extraordinaire George M. Cohan. Debuting in 1913, an era unencumbered by million-dollar budgets and pesky union affiliations, this sort of story came and went with the rapidity of today's television pilot season offerings.

How then director John Lewis Lozes and his cast have managed to make this inconsequential fluff even less palatable is a study in all things theatrically wrong. From the painfully labored opening scene to a predictably played surprise ending, highlighting the problems is comparable to shooting fish in a barrel. So, load up your shotguns, and let's get started.

Any farce requires a number of doors. Of the four displayed in designer Archie Frances' ramshackle set, three require a key to open and close them, a maddeningly time-consuming process. And yet they seem to swing to and fro of their own volition. Lozes' blocking is stilted and uninspired for the most part. His actors, who shall en masse remain nameless so as to preserve their dignity, display a level of skill akin to any small-town community theatre. Think Waiting for Guffman, and you'll get the picture.

Jaw-dropping favorites included the caretaker's wife, a channeled combination of Vicki Lawrence from Mama's Family and Granny Clampett; a village-idiot type whose line deliveries were rarely if ever intelligible; and the cameo role of a goose-stepping police rookie whose nauseatingly overused salute gag made me want to throw something at him.

Even this could have been charitably overlooked had some sense of rehearsal been evident. Instead, dropped lines, amateurish focus-hogging, and a horrendous lack of attention to detail were the order of the day. All in all, the show is best summed up by an ironic program note: "Please be aware that blanks will be discharged during the play."

"Seven Keys to Baldpate," presented by and at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. Fri.-Sat. 8 pm, Sun. 2:30 pm Also Thu. Feb. 17, 8 pm Jan. 7-Feb. 19. $12-18. (626) 256-3809.

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