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‘Claptrap’ Opens off-Broadway

June 15, 1987

NEW YORK (AP) _ One inspired performance, Nathan Lane playing a manic unemployed actor, enlivens ″Claptrap.″ The pointless farce opened Sunday as the final offering in the off-Broadway Manhattan Theater Club’s season.

″Claptrap″ is not meant as a comment on the quality of the play, though it comes dangerously close. It’s meant as a poor man’s ″Deathtrap.″

″Deathtrap″ is the favorite play of Harvey Wheatcraft, the ever- auditioning , never-hired actor played by Lane. He’ll audition for anything, even for the part of a bus driver who turns into a snarling cat at night and then, when his shift is changed, becomes a bus-driving cat. Lane can do it and make it funny.

The writing does not enliven the play. In the first act, there’s an awkward pause between nearly every sentence and when the next sentence comes it doesn’t flow naturally from the sentence before. In Act 2, sentences bump together without the awkward pauses, so it plays faster and better.

Still, author Ken Friedman needs to work hard if he plans to write more plays. This is his first; he has been writing for TV and films.

In ″Claptrap,″ Sam (Joel Polis) is a novelist who never gets past variations of his first sentence. To make money, he turns a fried chicken restaurant into a memorial chapel, with a few black drapes and black pantyhose on the door, and holds a service for his girlfriend’s stepfather. It’s during the service that Harvey the actor, thinking the room is an audition hall, does his bus driver-cat tour de force.

In Act 2, a year later, Sam and Harvey are roommates, both broke. Sam’s pile of typed pages of first sentences is higher. Harvey has auditioned for a musical about a Bronx welfare center. Then Harvey sells several ideas for sitcoms to a TV executive in a stuck elevator and Sam, jealous, decides to murder him, just as it’s done in ″Deathtrap.″

Lane recently was in ″The Common Pursuit″ and before that was on Broadway in ″Present Laughter,″ ″Merlin″ and as Toad in ″Wind in the Willows.″ Tresa Hughes was appropriately credulous as the widow at the memorial service. She has been frequently on Broadway, including in ″Tribute″ with Jack Lemmon. Cherry Jones plays the writer’s girlfriend.

Director David Trainer was unable to elicit a consistency of humorous sparks. David Potts designed a squalid apartment and chicken restaurant.

Near the end, the girlfriend says, ″I haven’t learned a thing.″ Neither had the audience.

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