Kathie Isaac-Luke

It is the eve of the election and incumbent President Charles H.P. Smith is in trouble. Most of his political allies have deserted him, his campaign coffers are empty, and his budget is in such bad shape that the Secret Service is reduced to working only half a day.

According to his chief of staff, his polls are "lower than Gandhi's cholesterol." And to make matters worse, his speech writer is pursuing her own personal agenda.

Thus begins David Mamet's no-holds-barred political satire, "November" at the Stage 3 Theatre in Sonora.

There is no ideology set forth in this play. The audience is never told whether Smith is a Democrat or a Republican, and it does not matter.

This president appears to be a composite drawn from various scoundrels who have worked their way into higher office. "November" is played strictly for laughs, and the situations in which these self-serving characters find themselves are wickedly and uproariously funny.

The dire predicament he faces does not seem to faze President Smith. He lives in a world where everyone is on the take, and for his remaining time in office, he intends to bilk his position for all it is worth. There is at least one war raging and another pending, and this president treats them with all the gravity of the annual turkey pardon event, which is being prepared offstage.

The turkey pardoning spectacle is used as an extended metaphor to illustrate how the trivial can be used to supplant the critical.

Instead of viewing the event as useful political theater, President Smith treats it as an opportunity to fleece the National Turkey Federation for unprecedented sums of money, and his plan is carried to hilarious absurdity.

Director Richard Kuebler keeps the laughs moving along at a rapid clip. The first act seemed to fly by in a blink. The very best thing about this production are the sharp performances. The actors are perfectly cast and work well together to bring this surreal comedy to life.

In the central role of President Smith, Michael Crich has excellent comic timing and possesses the authority to be entirely convincing as leader of the free world. Though cynical and intolerant, he exudes a charm and feigned sincerity which makes it understandable why he was elected in the first place.

Shelley Hodes is making her theatrical debut as the speechwriter, Clarice Bernstein, butin her winning performance, she seems like a pro. Her character is exhausted in the first act, having just returned from China where she adopted a baby girl. In the second act, she is single minded in her determination to see that Smith fulfills a promise to her. Bernstein is the only character with a shred of principle, and President Smith begrudgingly respects her for it.

Mike Moon gives an energetic and polished performance as Archer Brown, the amoral and intense chief of staff. A modern day Rasputin, he can turn on a dime, skillfully deny access and carefully spin situations to protect Smith's all important image.

So convincing is Moon, I could imagine him holding his own on a cable news political segment. And, as Brown, he nails some of the funniest lines in the play. "There are no solutions," he says at one point. "Only rearrangements of problems."

Veteran actor Stephen Daly makes the most of his role as Turkey Guy, who coordinates the turkey pardon and takes his job far too seriously. Daly is at his hilarious best when he finally loses his patience with the president's antics and starts to unravel.

Making his Stage 3 debut, Denny Bowen arrives late in the play and is effective as Dwight Grackle, an angry Native American lobbyist who has been viciously insulted by President Smith. His initial motive is to seek revenge, but he also has an agenda, and is not immune to the president's machinations.

Ron Cotnam designed the Oval Office set where all of the action takes place. Lighting is by Olivia Sorensen. The sharp, contemporary costumes are by Linda Glick.

Artistic Director Don Bilotti has issued a parental advisory for the language in the play, which contains many expletives. Not only are the president and his cohorts shamelessly politically incorrect, they are also frequently profane.

Mamet's witty script savagely skewers the political scene with its corrupting influence of money and power. This is certainly no "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." There is nothing deep here, nor, apparently, is there meant to be. "November" is a fun time at the theater where we can comfortably laugh at these thankfully fictional political players.

"November" runs through Oct. 7 at 208 S. Green St. in Sonora. For reservations, call 536-1778 or visit www.stage3.org.