From classic to absurdist, the focus this week on many of the area's stages is comedy, plus the world premiere of a new Tobin Atkinson piece about what life is like in America (see separate story on E11).

- NOISES OFF has been ranked as one of the funniest comedies ever written for the stage. It may not be as "sophisticated" as Noel Coward or as insightful as Neil Simon, but there's no getting around the fact that Michael Frayn's behind-the-scenes look at an inept troupe of British actors is wildly entertaining.This marks the third time that Pioneer Theatre Company has staged the piece, and seven years have passed since PTC's previous mounting. Once again, Charles Morey, the company's artistic director, will supervise the well-choreographed chaos.

The cast includes several familiar performers, some of whom are re-creating their original roles (Max Robinson as Frederick Fellowes, Joyce Cohen as Poppy Norton-Taylor, Anne Stewart Mark as Belinda Blair and Richard Mathews as Selsdon Mowbray).

Also in the cast are such previous PTC guest actors as Chris Mixon as Garry Lejeune and Kathleen McCall as Brooke Ashton, with Sam Stewart as Tim Allgood. Newcomers to the Lees Main Stage are Ross Bickell (Lloyd Dallas) and Celia Howard as Dotty Otley.

"Noises Off" is a cleverly conceived play-within-a-play, following a troupe of actors rehearsing and performing in a production called "Nothing On."

"Act One" depicts a disatrous rehearsal. A reprise of "Act One" repeats the same scenario, as seen from back stage. Then the finale - a third version of "Act One" - shows how far things have deteriorated as the tour has headed out into the provinces.

"Noises Off" was made into a fairly mediocre film a couple of years back. Probably not one that Michael Caine or Christopher Reeve are pleased about listing on their resumes. But Frayn's play has become a theater classic.

Performances will be Mondays-Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Dec. 6-23. Single tickets range from $11 to $29. Group rates are available. For reservations, call 581-6961. The Pioneer Memorial Theatre is at 300 S. 1340 East (Broadway at University) on the University of Utah campus.

- THE FOLDING GREEN, an absurdist comedy by Howard Moss about money, greed, spirits and deception, will be presented by Salt Lake Community Theatre at 8 p.m. on Dec. 6, 8 and 9 at Bryant Intermediate School, 40 S. 800 East (between South Temple and 100 South).

Director Sean M. Thomas' cast includes Tom Cornaby, Rob Purple, Susan Ketner, Laurel Purple Allie, Kelly Bennett, Paula Young, Doug Smith, Shelly Dockstader and Erinn K. Thomas.

Admission is $4 per person or $10 per family (up to six individuals). Discounts are also available for larger groups. Call 532-5621.

- THE SHEPHERD'S PLAY, Utah playwright Russ Lees' whimsical adaptation of the 15th century "Second Shepherd's Play" (itself adapted in 1450 by an anonymous cleric known as the Wakefield Master), will be presented Thursdays-Saturdays, Dec. 7-23, in the intimate Garret Theater, upstairs at Aardvark's Cabaret, 249 W. 400 South.

Technically, Lees' play should probably be called the "Third Shepherds' Play" since the Wakefield Master "Second" version was a rewrite of the "First Shepherd's Play," but who's counting?

Melanie Smith, who has done frequent stage-management for TheatreWorks West, will direct. Her cast includes Chris Poulsen, Nathan Jensen and Charla Brink- peter as the three shepherds, Rett Neale in the dual roles of Mack/ Joseph, Myra Robbins as Angel and Mary, and Becky Lees as Jill.

Russell Lees currently has a highly acclaimed new production playing Off Broadway: "Nixon's Nixon," a dark comedy about Nixon's last night in the White House.

Performances of "The Second Shepherd's Play" will be at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Beau Chaine, who manages Aardvark's, notes that there is ample parking behind the building. The lot adjacent to the site is no longer available, due to a hotel construction project. Tickets to the play are $7.50 each.

Aardvark's Cabaret is an ongoing fund-raising activity for the Utah Helpline. Gourmet dinners are offered on some nights prior to performances. Call 533-0927 for reservations or further information.

- THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER, Seattle playwright Barbara Robinson's hilarious comedy about the notoriously ornery Herdman kids and how they bring their own brand of mischief and mayhem to a local holiday pageant, will play Dec. 8-31 at the historic Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main, Park City.

Director Richard Scott's cast includes Allison Brown (most recently seen as Scout in PTC's "To Kill a Mockingbird"), Debbie Schirf, Danna Keiter, Krista Bleyle, Ann Kalstein, Michael O'Hara, Valeen Ottosen and Kim Page.

The Park City Performances production opens Friday, Dec. 8, then continues Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. until Dec. 31. There will be no performances on Dec. 24-26.

Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for senior citizens and students and $8 for children 11 and under. For this production, PCP is also offering a special family pass: $35 for two adults and two children, plus an adtional $5 each for other children in the same family.

Group rates are also available, as are discounted matinees performances for school groups. Call 649-9371 for reservations or further information.

- AN EVENING OF NEW PLAYS written by Westminster College students will be presented as staged readings on Friday, Dec. 8, at 8 p.m. by the Westminster Players.

Directed by Michael Vought, the evening will include Janice Hansen's "Boy Meets Girl," Paul D. Richardson's "Violatons" and Cory Updyke's "Untitled." One of the plays contains mature language.

The performance will be held in Nunemaker Place at the south end of the campus, 1840 S. 1300 East. For further information, call 488-4261.

- THE FISHERMAN AND HIS WIFE is being produced by the nationally acclaimed Missoula Children's Theater, whose claim to fame is sending just a couple of adult directors into a school on Monday, holding intense workshops and rehearsals during the week, then mounting a weekend production.

It's the kind of artistic turn-around other theaters dream about.

On Saturday, Dec. 9, performances of the fable, "The Fisherman and His Wife," will be staged at 2 and 7 p.m. at the Realms of Inquiry Private School, 1140 S. 900 East (21/2 blocks south of the Ninth and Ninth district). Admission will be $5 for adults and $3 for children and senior citizens.