Reviews of Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" usually start with the words "modern classic," then move into breathy praise of the "sparkling dialogue" and "theatricality." Inevitably they end, however, with a word of caution about whether Stoppard pulled a fast one on the theater world by using wit and a gift for English to disguise what really amounts to clever mind candy.

Audiences may decide for themselves when the play opens Jan. 23 in downtown Oakland's Marion E. Greene Black Box Theatre, 531 19th St. The play, chosen by TheatreFIRST for the second installment of its current season, could be called an adaptation of "Hamlet" — if Stoppard had been adapting William Shakespeare for the Mad Hatter (or Mad Magazine).

Stoppard uses "Hamlet" more as a convenient device to show the absurdity of the world — not to mention his love of word play — than as tribute to Shakespeare's dark tragedy. As admired as both plays are, Stoppard's adaptation for film didn't work particularly well.

But TheatreFIRST's version shines on stage, especially with Marybeth Cavanaugh as director. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bat words back and forth like table-tennis champs — if there had been such a thing in the 16th century.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were two minor characters in "Hamlet." Stoppard, however, propels the two friends into the title roles and turns everything else upside down, beginning with their orders by Hamlet's evil uncle — who has killed Hamlet's father, married his mother the queen and taken over the throne — to find out why the prince is acting like a madman.

Like a slapstick "I Love Lucy" episode, the two bumble from one scene to the next, barely escaping intact and with no idea why they got into the scrape to begin with.

The piece is entertaining, even though nothing is really funny about what is happening. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern "is a very funny play about death," as New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes put in 1967, when the piece made its U.S. debut. "Very funny, very brilliant, very chilling; it has the dust of thought about it, and the particles glitter excitingly in the theatrical air," he wrote. "For this is antic lunacy with a sad, wry purpose."

"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" will preview Thursday and Friday. Tickets for those performances are $10. The show opens Jan. 23. Friday is "OSA Day," when Oakland School for the Arts students will get a firsthand look at the world of professional theater during the performance and an after-show discussion. Performances will be held at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 14.

Tickets are $25 on Thursdays and $30 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Go to www.theatrefirst.com for special prices for season tickets, patrons younger than 30 and seniors, or call 510-436-5085.