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ClapTrap is LaughTrap

Claptrap by Ken Friedman, directed by Robert Drivas; American Repertory Theatre at the Hasty Pudding Theatre.

If you want to laugh painfully, go to Ken Friedman's Claptrap at the Hasty Pudding. Claptrap is very silly. There's an actor who can never get a role, and a writer who spends years working on myriad versions of "page one," and is unable to progress to page two.

For the actor, the world comes down to "love, murder and random homosexuality." When he gets caught in an elevator with a CBS mogul, and clinches a deal to write "Elevator '85," his contract specifies that he must be gay. So he's obliged to stop his attempt to seduce the writer's girlfriend (who has just pretended to strangle the writer); but the problem is solved by the idea of having him be gay and heterosexual in shifts.

The first act takes place in a funeral parlor converted from its previous use as a "Mr. Lightning's Chicken;" the smell of ribs lingers on. The funeral is for the writer's girlfriend's stepfather whose remains fail to arrive on time; unfortunately her mother does arrive on time. The writer, acting as undertaker, makes an impromptu "art deco" urn out of soda cans. "It's garbage," he's told. "Exactly, it's art."

Ken Friedman is, above all, a master of language. He constructs mad situations with the most imaginative use of words in ways which grab you twice: Once on contact, and secondly -- a split second later -- once you're caught in the stranglehold of the inevitable laugh, to make you almost choke on the mirth. The scene where the actor enters the writer's chicken shop funeral parlor thinking he's arrived for a play audition is a particular gem of farce. The words used by the actor fit the world of the "funeral," promoting unlimited and wonderful misunderstanding.

The acting was of a consistently high standard all round. Harry S. Murphy plays Sam, the writer, making him a bumbler, hyper, and insecure. His attempts to be a funeral director were quite delicious. "My mourners are here, primed, ready to grieve," he exclaims with the utmost indignation when the remains fail to turn up. Cherry Jones did a splendid job as his hair-brained girlfriend. Her expressions and posturing were quite riotous. Treat Williams gave Harvey, the actor, a more than due load of airs and graces, creating a character of complexes centered on failure. Rose Arrick brought out the hysteria at the right moments as Mom; Ursula Drabik as Sybil, whom Harvey meets while waiting for a bus, generated a massive laugh as she burst into the funeral to demand "hot juicy ribs."

The sets by Karen Schulz were just right: The parlor, with cooking implements still in view, man and woman signs still conspicuously in view on the bathroom doors, panty hose to provide black for mourning and a great deal of grime, was beautifully enigmatic. And the sheer squalor of Sam and Harvey's apartment (where half the bathroom was cleaned 17 months ago...) cemented Claptrap as a Laughtrap even if Harvey never gets his coveted role in Deathtrap.

Claptrap is part of The Tech Performing Arts Series at the Hasty Pudding Theatre: Tickets are available for all members of the MIT community for only $5. See announcement this issue.

Jonathan Richmond->