note: entire contents copyright 2000 By Alan W. Petrucelli
It is sheer madness, this trifle of comedy masquerading as a murder-mystery known as "Shear Madness." And it's been causing sheer madness ever since it opened two decades ago, making the play the longest-running consecutive run in American theater history. (The show is running in Boston and several other American cities, as well as in Italy, New Zealand, Hungry, Canada and Puerto Rico. Original cost to produce: $110,000; total profits to date: More than $102 million worldwide.)
What makes "Shear Madness" so successful isn't that it's great theater (it isn't) or that it's very original (it isn't) or that it boasts great acting and great sets (no and no). What it does have---what it's had since Bruce Jordan and Marilyn Abrams bought the rights to a German murder-mystery called "Scherenschnitt" and pumped up the laughs back in 1980---is a core of fun. Plain and simple. This is interactive theater at its best---think a 90-minute game of "Clue" played in front of your eyes and ears, and without Colonel Mustard and Miss Scarlet and a noose and revolver.
Here, the characters are caricatures: Mrs. Shubert, a rich matron of the arts; Tony Newcomb, an effeminate hairdresser whose tongue is (almost) as sharp as his scissors; Edward Lawrence, a shady antiques dealer; and Barbara DeMarco, a tough-gal beautician whose accent is as thick as the Revlon Flex that gets wasted by the container full during the show's opening moments.
Then there's one character we never see: Isabel Czerny, a pianist on the verge of a comeback, a woman who lives above the Shear Madness unisex salon on Newbury Street, a woman whose odd habits and constant practicing bothers everyone working in the shop, a woman who, within the first hour of "Shear Madness," is found dead...stabbed to death with a six-inch pair of hairdressing shears. All the players are prime suspects. All have deep-dark secrets for wanting to get rid of the old lady. And each has an alibi.
That's where the audience comes in. Two detectives appear on the scene, the suspects are ushered into the supply closet, the "walls" drop, and the police ask the audience members for help in finding out whodunit. They are encouraged to call out as they right wrongs, correct suspect's "memories" and pint out the obvious. (One cop even stands outside during intermission, taking clues and comments.)
The killer can change at every performance; it all depends on how the audience votes. (The show has it own groupies; many die-hard devotees will trail the show as new productions open.)
And it's the audience that ultimately makes "Shear Madness" exciting and energetic or maddeningly tepid and tame. On the recent Sunday night I saw the show, the crowd was noisy and hostile, causing the cast to finally resort to simply sticking to the show's flimsy core. (See, acting can be murder.)
That's not to say that even a benign "Shear Madness" isn't fun. The humor is predicable: jokes are either so bad they groan ("I'd rather get shaved by Lorena Bobbitt!") or so old you'll groan ("I'm an Aries, and right now you're moon in is my Uranus"), and there's a healthy helping of jokes at the expense of the white-trash beautician (She may have had a "Lebanese" relationship with the dead woman) and effete hairdresser. Each production is chock full of local references; in the Boston take, mentions of Medford and Braintree gets big laughs.
Another important essential in making the show work is the energy of the cast; most of the cast members have been in various versions of the show, and they are skilled at tossing out barbs with seeming spontaneity. The current Boston production cast is top-notch; especially good is Ellen Colton as the snooty Shubert (make a movie of the show, and cast Joan Rivers for perfect casting) and John Kuntz as hairdresser Tony, whose flirting and frivolity add a delightful touch.
For a show that's 20 years old, "Shear Madness" is still a hair-raising experience.
"Shear Madness" is performed Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., at the Charles Playhouse, 74 Warrenton Street in Boston. Tickets: $34. For reservations, call (617) 426-5225.