In lesser hands, the fascination with drug use and 12-step programs that gives Sherwood Kiraly's new comedy Who's Hot, Who's Not its gravitas could have been insufferable—one more tired attempt at theatrical self-absorption. But as he freely admits in print, the Laguna Beach-based writer used to have a bad case of the shaky hands himself. Kiraly poured his experiences into a 1998 novel and adapted it for this stage play at the Laguna Beach Playhouse. His genuine experience elevates this work from a funny comedy hindered by a shaky plot and predictable characters into a sweetly rendered and compassionate piece that aims for the heart rather than the funny bone.
Though the play is billed as a "whirlwind comedy" that deals with "the fleeting nature of fame in America's disposable culture," its primary concern is in fact more intimate. Two lonely people are battling the past as they learn to say that most painful of goodbyes: to the very things—as burdensome and soul-sapping as they may be—that make them who they are.
Kiraly has worn many hats through his journalism and writing career, including editing comic strips like "B.C." and "Wizard of Id." That same type of quick-hitting humor is evident in Who's Hot. But director Andrew Barnicle blends the humor with surprising compassion and crisp performances to produce a work that rises above its pedestrian plot and characters: driven magazine publisher, eccentric homeless guy, desperate B-list celebrity.
The play is narrated by career journalist Joe Hoyle (Finn Curtin), a trivia-dispensing recovering alcoholic and editor of Who's Hot, Who's Not—a trade magazine listing those who matter and those who don't in the industry that cares most about such things. His boss, Harry Poe (John Ross Clark), is a driven son of a bitch who collects death threats from celebrities on the downside of his magazine's hot list like a drunk collects hangovers: by now, he's used to them.
Both men live in Laguna Beach, and it's a simple wager that drives the story: Harry bets Joe $100 that he can beat him in a morning commute to the magazine's Los Angeles office. Harry stacks the deck by picking up homeless woman Carole (Forbes Riley), who's standing alongside the 405 freeway, so he can use the carpool lane. In true Pygmalion-Pretty Woman fashion, the homeless woman winds up being far more complicated, serving as a medium for personal transformation. In these quieter moments, the play feels most introspective—not a whirlwind gale, but something subtler, moving the viewer out of the binary world of hot-and-not and into something like goodness.