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Theater Review

Jokes Keep 'Who's Hot' Running Smoothly

Dialogue by writer Sherwood Kiraly helps overcome the sometimes wayward narrative.

February 27, 2001|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

The Laguna Playhouse scores points for both ambition (of a sort) and populism with "Who's Hot, Who's Not," the new comedy by Sherwood Kiraly.

This is an ingratiating audience-pleaser, commissioned by the theater--that's the ambition angle--and adapted from Laguna resident Kiraly's own 1998 novel. Not the least of its virtues: It's full of verbal jokes that don't go clunk, even when the narrative itself makes threatening clunking noises.

Like Kiraly's novel, his stage version is narrated by midlevel magazine editor Joe Hoyle (Finn Curtin, whose comic touch suggests a buttoned-down version of Philip Seymour Hoffman). The benign Hoyle works for Who's Hot, Who's Not, a snide, list-crazy entertainment publication.

His boss and old college pal, the supremely egotistic Harry Poe (John Ross Clark), has received his latest death threat ("File this with the others," he tells Barbara Passolt's Joanne). Who's after Harry? Plenty are plotting revenge of some kind, including the oft-maligned actor Art Klee (Tom Shelton).

Early on, Harry makes a bet with Joe: a hundred bucks to whomever commutes fastest from his home in Laguna Beach to the magazine's Westwood office. Toward that end, Harry picks up a homeless woman begging on the 405, so he can use the carpool lane.

The woman is alcoholic Carole Spangler (enjoyably deadpan Forbes Riley). Eventually, Harry bankrolls her business idea: a company called Carpool Companions, co-founded by the hulking Reuben (Patrick Munoz). Both Joe and Harry are drawn to Carole, who in better days worked as a hygienist in her father's dentist office.

"Who's Hot, Who's Not" takes a screwball premise and treats it with increasing bittersweetness. As the play nudges the milquetoast Joe, who has been sober for 13 years, toward the struggling Carole, it becomes a kind of Alcoholics Anonymous romance.

You never quite buy Carole's transformation--she's used first as a comic device to kick-start the plot, then as a dramatic one, to lend the play some real feeling. Yet you can overlook the glibness, a pat ending and the wavering tone, simply because Kiraly has a way with dialogue. The jokes often pop satisfyingly, without turning the characters into Pez dispensers of one-liners.

Director Andrew Barnicle delivers a solid world premiere, buoyed by a cheery multi-locational set (hilltop Laguna Beach palace, ordinary apartment, magazine office, 405 diamond lane) from designer Dwight Richard Odle. Curtin makes a potentially passive character interesting and easy company; Riley's Spangler forces neither the glib wisecracks in Act 1 nor the pathos in Act 2. Clark's Harry does the job, though more comic urgency wouldn't hurt.

The pre-show and between-scenes bits, in which the actors mix it up with the stage managers, belongs to a different script. This particular script has its own identity issues; it's trying a little of everything. Yet the odd-duck result proves Kiraly can write for the stage, and write funny.

*

"Who's Hot, Who's Not," Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road (Highway 133), Laguna Beach. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. (no evening performance March 25). Ends March 25. $34-$43. (949) 497-2787. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Finn Curtin: Joe Hoyle

John Ross Clark: Harry Poe

Barbara Passolt: Joanne Shaw

Tom Shelton Art: Klee

Forbes Riley: Carole Spangler

Patrick Munoz: Reuben Schifrin

Written by Sherwood Kiraly, adapted from his novel. Directed by Andrew Barnicle. Scenic design by Dwight Richard Odle. Costumes by Michael Pacciorini. Lighting by Paulie Jenkins. Sound by David Edwards. Production stage manager Alice Harkins.

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