"Noises Off," the exuberantly comic play-within-a-play about a third-rate British traveling theater company, now being produced by the Fairlington Players, will leave your stomach aching and eyes watering, not because of pain, but because of laugh-out-loud pleasure.

It is not easy to be terrible on purpose, but for this play to work, it's a requirement. The Fairlington Players have to mimic bad actors and create disastrous pratfalls, all surrounded by cheesy sets. And this production happily wallows in the awfulness with a troupe of bumblers, mumblers and tumblers who make incompetence an art form.

"Getting the sardines on and off. That's farce. That's theater. That's life," Lloyd Dallas (Lyle Smythers), who in the play is the weary director, says to his cast as the dress rehearsal drags on into the wee hours.

The farce by England's Michael Frayn concerns a small traveling theater group, which is busy messing up an already salacious sex farce called "Nothing On." It's all double entendres and in-one-door-out-the-other antics, but the perverted twists on stage are no match for the offstage goings-on. By the time the second and third acts of "Noises Off" lurch forward, the director is sleeping with both the mousy stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor (Amy Bruch-McWilliams) and the small-brained ingenue, Brooke Ashton (Mari Lisa Pappas). Well-weathered Dotty Otley (Donna Lillard) is similarly engaged with the inarticulate young actor Garry Lejeune (Larry Baird), who in turn is jealous of the knuckleheaded Freddy Fellowes (Bill Karukas), who seems to be involved with actress Belinda Blair (Harriet Barrett), the only non-dotty member of this gang of loonies. And, to further muck it up, there's drunken Selsdon Mowbray (Malcolm Edwards), ever in search of a bottle of scotch.

The show must go on, but the cobweb of comic jealousies unravels to subvert the whole endeavor. Throw in the props -- too many doors, contact lenses that won't stay in and pants that won't stay up -- and the perfectly tacky set, and the results are a slapstick series of disasters.

It's not easy making this mess, but director Bruce Follmer manages to lead his cast into the chaos with ease. Of particular joy is Pappas as the dipsy Brooke, who bats her eyes and continues on as all hell breaks loose. But all the others are accomplished, too -- this is an ensemble play that needs all its motley crew in fine form.

The play continues Friday, Saturday and Dec. 4, 5, 6, 11 and 12 at the Gunston Art Center in Arlington. For information call 739-2915.