"AUTOMATIC PILOT" is a rare find, a fast, fresh and seriously funny new comedy that makes you laugh even when it hurts. And it's impressively acted and handsomely produced by Horizons Theater.

Through the engaging Charlie, a wisecrack- wielding female standup comic, Canadian playwright Erika Ritter distills an essence of the '80s. Ritter captures our obsession with work, sex and love and pinpoints how we detach ourselves by going on automatic pilot, keeping "safe" from the threat of involvement.

By day, Charlie writes scripts for the soaps, which she aptly dubs "sitdown comedy." But her own life rivals her invented plots. It includes Alan, her separated husband, a black actor who discovered he was gay while married to her; slick Nick, an inveterate user who has a no-fault roses-and-champagne system for getting women in and out of his life; and Nick's nurturing younger brother Gene, a would-be novelist who scoops Charlie up after Nick dumps her, and makes life good for her at last -- so good she can't accept it.

Lonely, hard-drinking Charlie submerges her attractiveness in Annie Hall castoffs, deflecting affection with an armor of one-liners. She bemoans the lack of personal attachment -- "I think we used up our quota of commitment in the '60s," she quips -- but she can't handle it when it arrives in person. A funny lady who sadly has to lose to win, Charlie cannibalizes her life for laughs, cracking jokes with a despairing twist: "Take my life . . . please."

Ritter's ear for dialogue is acute, and Charlie's standup segments ring funny and true, even when she's bombing -- the brisk script brings out the tightrope tension of the professional comic's performance.

Stephanie Siegel Cavanaugh, whose voice and appearance are reminiscent of Stockard Channing, plays Charlie with an appealingly edgy blend of fragility and capability. Christopher Hurt impresses as Gene, with a quick comic flair to match Charlie's. Martin Goldsmith and Vincent James Brown are also solid as Nick and Alan.

Director Susan Marya Baronoff shifts the action fluidly between two apartments and the comedy club (designed by Jon Hensley) and cleverly employs taped comedy patter from comedian Dan Brenner and other local funny folks.

AUTOMATIC PILOT -- At Horizons Theater through February 16.