By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Nov 27, 2002 at 5:14 AM

Timing, of the comedic variety, is the secret ingredient in Next Act's newest production, "Rough Crossing," written by Tom Stoppard.

The play-within-a-play is situated aboard the SS Italian Castle, a luxury liner traveling from Europe to Broadway. Two playwrights, Turai (Brian Robert Mani) and Gal (D. Lance March), dramatists in their own right, have only the length of the ship's voyage -- four days -- to complete a half-written musical comedy scheduled to play upon their arrival in New York.

Adding to the recipe is a young, love-struck composer, Adam (Paul Hurley), who has been stricken with a frustrating speech impediment, rendering him unable to hold a normal conversation. His older fiancee and star of the to-be musical, Natasha (Tracy Michelle Arnold), is a beautiful but manipulative actress. Her co-star and former lover, Ivor (Daniel Mooney), is an aging and temperamental actor. And bringing together all the flavors is the ship's unabashed cabin steward, Dvornichek (Robert Spencer), an elder gentleman who enjoys his cognac (or any alcoholic beverage, for that matter).

A healthy dash of situation comedy is added: In order to complete a successful production, Turai and Gal, must convince Adam, the play's composer, that Natasha and Ivor are not having an affair, after the three overhear a steamy conversation between the two actors. Turai, the mastermind, crafts a scheme to put Natasha back in Adam's arms and the play on its way to success.

The British humor, a steady flow of comedic banter, is hilarious. But, the overall plot of "Rough Crossing" is slightly overpowered by the very complicated and long-winded production the two playwrights are concocting. The play's instrumental timing, however, is excellently executed, from Adam's speech hesitations, to Dvornichek, the cabin steward, and his constant wanderings on and off stage.

{INSERT_RELATED}

Robert Spencer, who plays Dvornichek, is a comedic genius, stealing the show with his deadpan humor. The cast also performs several charming musical numbers with a song and dance to rival any musical.

The plays costume designer, Marsha Kuligowski, adds a very fun and classic '40s glam wardrobe for all, especially the most flamboyant, Natasha and Ivor, and Dvornichek when he gets down to his skivvies in one funny scene.

Of course, Stoppard is best known for his 1966 play, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," and as co-author for "Shakespeare in Love," which garnered a best screenplay Oscar in 1999. "Rough Crossing" is Stoppard's adaptation of Ferenc Molnar's classic farce, "Play at the Castle."

"Rough Crossing" plays at the Off-Broadway Theatre, 342 N. Water St., through Sun., Dec. 22. Ticket prices range from $22-28. For more information, call the box office at (414) 278-0765.