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More Fire for ‘Who’s Hot’

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The playwright who adapted the comic novel “Who’s Hot, Who’s Not” for the stage has taken huge liberties with the piece. The theme has grown weightier, the ending is completely different and one of the book’s most delicious characters has been scrapped.

The novelist has not called screaming to the Laguna Playhouse, where “Who’s Hot” premieres Saturday after tonight’s final preview. That’s because he’s the playwright.

For Sherwood Kiraly, the play “Who’s Hot, Who’s Not” is a second chance, an opportunity to bring more dramatic force to a 1998 novel he feels worked mainly as “a lark.” While writing the book, Kiraly found two of his characters pulling him to go deeper, to draw upon his own experience as a recovering alcoholic. But a deadline loomed, and he just didn’t have the emotional energy to follow through.

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“I wanted to do it once more with feeling,” Kiraly, 51, said in a recent interview in a Playhouse office. Among the affable, compactly built author’s chores for the day was signing boxfuls of copies of the novel to be sold at a play that figures to give audiences a much different experience.

The 30-year chain of events leading to Kiraly’s second chance may be as unlikely as any invention in “Who’s Hot.”

In 1971 as a theater major at Knox College in Illinois, he was the co-writer, composer, piano accompanist and director of a musical called “Howie Tripped Over the Ground Today.” He got a chance to take the show to Morton College, another Illinois campus, and there he cast undergraduate Andrew Barnicle in the title role.

Barnicle went on to a career as an actor, teacher and director and, since 1991, as artistic director of the Laguna Playhouse. Kiraly had a sketch comedy troupe for a while after college, but he fell into a temporary job at Field Newspaper Syndicate that turned into a career editing comic strips and columnists, including Roger Ebert, Ann Landers and Erma Bombeck.

The company was sold, and in 1979 Kiraly moved with it to Orange County. It was sold again in 1988, and this time the whole staff was out of a job. Kiraly had nearly a year’s severance pay and decided that if he ever was going to write the novel he had in him, now was the time.

“California Rush,” about an epic baseball game, was published in 1990; “Diminished Capacity” and “Big Babies” followed.

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One day in 1993, Kiraly walked up the ramp of the Laguna Playhouse’s Moulton Theater to attend “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Barnicle greeted him by breaking into a jaunty hangdog love song from the show they had done together 22 years before.

“I had never forgotten it,” Barnicle says. “I don’t know why.”

Then one last pivotal coincidence.

Kiraly had kept a hand in theater as an occasional actor with Readers Repertory Theatre, an Orange County troupe that gives monthly staged readings, mostly of classics, at local libraries.

Artistic director Edith Schwartz had asked Kiraly to adapt three scenes from his books for a reading that coincided with the publication of “Who’s Hot, Who’s Not.” Barnicle happened to attend a show at the Newport Beach Public Library, where his wife works, and he thought the scene from “Who’s Hot” might be worth developing. Soon Kiraly had a commission to turn the novel into a play.

The main character in the book is Harry Poe, the hard-driving, win-at-all-costs magazine publisher who owns Who’s Hot, Who’s Not, a snide celebrity rag that gives thumbs up or down to pop culture’s stars and strivers.

Harry bets two of his employees that he can give them a head start and still beat them from Laguna Beach, where they all live, to the magazine office in Los Angeles. He wins by forcing a homeless woman into his car on Laguna Canyon Road and motoring up the San Diego Freeway’s carpool lane. (Kiraly says the idea came to him while he was idling in the same freeway’s fast lane at rush hour while carpoolers sped by.)

Harry falls for the homeless woman, Carole Spangler, a smart, plucky, once-respectable but now booze-loving denizen of a cave in Laguna Canyon. His mission in life becomes helping her launch Carpool Companions, a business that puts her homeless buddies to work as timesaving freeway ride-alongs.

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The novel is mainly about whether Harry will win Carole, whether he will solve a whodunit and foil a plot on his life (Harry has enough enemies to provide lots of suspects), and whether Harry’s longtime friend and factotum, Joe Hoyle, will find the gumption to be his own man.

All of that is in the play, but as it heads toward its climax, the focus turns to Carole and Joe. We learn that Joe is a long-sober former alcoholic and that he hopes to rescue Carole from her life as a seemingly carefree drunk.

“I thought the book was resolved cleverly, but I was doing it kind of skating along, writing about superficial people who do superficial things, and it was supposed to be a lark. I was shooting for something else with the play,” Kiraly said.

“Andy told me, ‘Don’t be afraid to write a serious play.’ It’s still a comedy, but I finally got a chance to swing for the fences and try for both comedy and drama. That’s the stuff I like best when it works well. If we get that right, I think it will be a pretty rich experience that will sneak up on some people.”

Kiraly says there is a lot of himself in Joe Hoyle--enough that “I always thought I could play Joe better than anybody. But I’m happy to say I found out different” when veteran actor Finn Curtin came along. Previously a member of the Actor’s Theater of San Francisco, he is making his Southern California stage debut.

If all goes well, Kiraly said, audiences will simultaneously see the unfolding of two life-or-death crises: Harry’s farcical showdown with Art Klee, a movie star who is the special, perennially not-hot whipping boy of his magazine, and Joe’s attempt to keep a reluctant Carole sober through New Year’s Eve and get her into Alcoholics Anonymous.

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Sober since 1985, Kiraly had never written about alcoholism before.

“I thought it would be interesting if you could approach it from the point of view of the alcoholic who is still drinking and the alcoholic who has many years of sobriety and have them butt heads,” he said. “I was able to ground their story in feelings I remember having at the end of my drinking, and feelings that I sometimes have today after years of not drinking.”

For Kiraly, going to rehearsals has been “the best work experience I’ve had in my life.” His 12-year-old daughter, Katie, a budding playwright herself, has tagged along. Kiraly’s wife, Patti Jo, is a jewelry designer with a shop in Laguna. They live in the Top of the World neighborhood where much of the “Who’s Hot” action is set. Keaton, the author’s 19-year-old son from a previous marriage, is a student at UC Santa Barbara.

After so many years of living with characters in his head and on the page, Kiraly says he gets an emotional jolt every time he sees them come alive on stage. The fact that a very personal part of him is up there adds to the impact.

“I find stuff welling up as I watch it, especially in the second act,” he said. “To see them living, and at this level of [acting] accomplishment, it gets me all sappy.”

Kiraly had a near miss in getting his novel “Diminished Capacity” made as a film. He is working on a fresh screen adaptation of that book and is thinking of turning the “Who’s Hot” play script into a screenplay as well. That might allow him to reintroduce Bobbi LaMott, the sweet, incomparably gorgeous film trivia expert who works at Harry Poe’s magazine. He reluctantly cut her out of the play to keep the play’s focus tight.

Kiraly thinks he may be catching the theater bug for the first time since college. “I enjoy working with actors so much that I might want to do it again.”

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To gather more theatrical acumen, and just to enjoy the ride, he plans to attend most of the performances in the “Who’s Hot” run.

“I think it will be good to study the different audiences and the subtleties from night to night. And it’s too exciting [not to go]. You never know how many opportunities you’ll have.”

SHOW TIMES

“Who’s Hot, Who’s Not,” Laguna Playhouse’s Moulton Theater, 606 Laguna Canyon Road. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m. Matinees Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Premieres Saturday after tonight’s final preview. Regular performances Saturday through March 25. $30-$43. (949) 497-2787.

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