THE GREAT ELECTION

Fahrenheit 9/11, this ain't. Instead, try Celsius 9.11. If there's comedy in director John Stark's misbegotten production of Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock's comic writings, it must have been confiscated at the border, for this choppy and confused production is fundamentally a mess. Stark's adaptation doesn't capture what we must suppose to have been the wit and sense of irony found in Leacock's original writing; the production instead falters with oafish characters, poorly set up jokes, and weirdly mechanical pacing.

The play is set in Pahrump, Nev., where sneaky Republican Judge Pepperleigh (Zale Morris) has managed to finagle an election to recall sleazy, corrupt, Democratic state Senator Henry Bagshaw (Gil Ellis). But, with Bagshaw having been in office for upwards of a dozen years, who can the Grand Old Party put up as a rival candidate? Before long, Pepperleigh has fastened on sleazy casino owner Josh (Ron Bottitta), who agrees to run on a temperance ticket. How to convince the general public and local preacher/financial backer Mother Lode (Lynn Wanlass) that the boozing, gambling goon is a Man of the People? Well, this is America, where anyone can follow their dream, no matter how twisted.

What could be an ironic statement about the cynical world of politics instead comes across as being a confused collection of awkward shtick and unconvincing philosophical dogma. Yes, it would be a bad thing if American politics was like this; but it isn't, and Stark's jumbled production doesn't capture the way people behave. The show devolves into a morass of muddled dialogue and lame stereotypes. The performances are energetic, but little effort has been expended to craft rich personalities for these small-town types. In addition, there's something off-putting about the fact that the characters all live in Nevada but talk as though they live in Land of the Hicks, Ga. Ellis' pettifogging drunk Senator and Kathleen Gati's prostitute girlfriend of the Republican candidate adequately capture a cheerful, cartoony mood. But most of the other performers, perhaps understandably, seem to have no faith in the words they're being asked to speak and rush through the dialogue, mangling the jokes and making entire scenes virtually unintelligible.

"The Great Election," presented by John Stark Productions at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. July 31-Aug. 22. $15-19.50. (310) 477-2055.