FILUMENA by Eduardo De Fillippo; English version by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall; directed by Laurence Oliver; sets and costumes by Raimonda Gaetani; lighting by Thomas Skelton.

With Joan Plowright, Frank Finlay, Ernest Sarracino, Dennis Boutsikaris, Donna Davis, Pierre Epstein, Peter Iacangelo, Bill Karnovsky, Gabor Morea, Lisa Passero, Stephen Schnetzer, Fiddle Viracola and Miriam Phillips.

At the Mechanic Theatre, Baltimore, through Jan. 26.

Like a sunless dawn. . .

Like a scentless rose. . .

Like a. . .

No, blast it all! There is simply no simile, animal, mineral or vegetable, that is up to the grisly task of describing a comedy without laughs. The thing must be addressed head-on. (And no sideways maneuvers will suffice, either, if the new director -- none other than Laurence Oliver -- is to make this painful production presentable.)

"Filumena" hails originally from Italy, where, along with dozens of other works by the farceur Eduardo De Fillippo, it has achieved a wide following. The play is about a former prostitute, Filumena, who has been living with the same well-heeled Neapolitan, Demenico, for 25 years.

When he takes up with a younger woman, Filumena pretends to be dying in order to cajole him into marrying her. He falls for the ruse but, realizing he has fallen, is furious, "I only married you because you promised you were going to die!" he storms.

Then she reveals that there are three sons in the picture -- all hers, one his -- whom she would like to favor, indiscriminately, with his good name. He wants an annulment -- but he can't help being curious about the identity of his child and heir. We have in short, an Italian stand-off.

Sounds funny, yes? Not at the Mechanic Theater in Baltimore, not starring Joan Plowright (Lady Oliver), not as adapted by Englishman Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, it isn't.

Like Filumena's sons, this production is a bastard child -- part-Italian, part-English, all-wooden. This is a play that needs to be acted tempestuously, with noise and pace and Latin fervor. But instead of crackling like fireworks, the Baltimore edition merely smokes and sputters. And the largest apparent cause is Plowright herself, giving a bland, contorted, anticomic performance that scarcely gives anyone else in the cast a comic chance.

("Filumena" has made one previous, and unsuccessful, trip to the United States, as "The Best House in Naples" in 1956. It was also the basis for the movie "Marriage Italian Style" with Sopia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni.)

At Tuesday night's opening, the man on my left fell asleep during what I regarded as one of Plowright's more lively scenes, and the other patrons in our neighborhood gazed enviously in his direction (until his embarrassed wife prodded him back to life). Across the aisle, folks were checking their watches and peeking into their programs. Everywhere, except on-stage, the house was silent, and the silence was anything but golden.

But while the play aroused no perceptible interest, the external news did. At the door, the opening night audience was greeted with a handout announcing that the producers "were indeed honored and thrilled . . . to have Laurence Olivier with us to direct "Filumena.'" Franco Zeffirelli, the document explained, "had to leave the production immediately following the Boston opening, due to the rescheduling of a prior film commitment." Since the show was known to be in bad straits, Zeffirelli's movie commitment seemed strangely convenient and, indeed, funny -- funnier by far, it turned out, than the production he had bequeathed to Lord Olivier.

As he took his seat, the new director responded with a graceful flourish to a standing ovation -- and that, too, turned out to be the loudest applause of the night. Olivier has been with the company a week, it was reported, so how much of what we saw Tuesday represents his work and how much Zeffirelli's, it would be presumptuous to guess. Whatever the proportions, the task ahead is formidable, and it is a cruel world that requires a play to have an "opening" in such a state.

In Olivier's and the show's favor are a splendid set with, of all unexpected things, a full ceiling (and, thus, frontlighting); the always funny, ethnically boundless Frank Finlay as Domenico; Dennis Boutsikaris, Stephen Schnetzer and Peter Iacangelo as his three possible sons; and the rollicking third-act scene in which Finlay tries to sniff out his heir by testing each candidate's inherited talents at womanizing and singing (his two specialities). Here, for once, we are in scratching distance of the boisterous, juicy romance "Filumena" was meant to be. If Plowright, a skilled actress who has made bad choices, could get into this rhythm, there is no telling what might happen to the play as a whole.

But there may be elements in "filumena" that are simply not exportable. One can imagine, for example, its long passages of background-imparting dialogue rolling rather entertainingly out of their original Italian mouths. In our choppier tongue, the same speeches are so much tortuous e-ex-po-o-os-i-i-ition.

"Filumena" was a considerable hit on London's West End last year, with the current stars under Zeffirelli's direction. But England's taste in comedy, also, is not universal. These are the people, remember, who gave the world "There's a Girl in My Soup" and "No Sex Please, We're British!"