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Shear Madness

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jodan Ahnquist, Lynne Wintersteller, Jeremy Kushnier, Kate Middleton, Adam Gerber, and Patrick Noonan
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Shear Madness may be many things—raucous, ribald, unpredictable, overwhelmingly enjoyable in spite of itself—but a great play it most assuredly is not. And, as the long-delayed New York premiere production of it at New World Stages proves, that's not at all a bad thing.

Bruce Jordan and Marilyn Abrams's comedy, which got its start as dinner-theatre entertainment in the late 1970s, has registered itself as a legitimate phenomenon in Boston (where it opened in 1980 and is still playing) and Washington, D.C. (where it opened in 1987 and is still playing). Though it's based (oh so loosely) on an interactive mystery called Scherenschnitt from German playwright Paul Pörtner, it takes its cues not from traditional concepts of plot and character structure, but rather from the vicissitudinous whims of everyone who comes in contact with it. Yes, yes, every performance of every live show ever done has technically been unique. But Shear Madness takes it to a whole other level, incorporating local in-jokes, of-the-day current events, and—this is key—its onlookers' viewpoints and personalities to the point that it's practically impossible to know what precisely is planned ahead of time and what is not.

So a theatre critic is in the difficult position of trying to describe an evening that will never—can never—be seen again. What remains largely unchanged, night to night, is the basic premise. The Shear Madness hair salon is thrown into a fizzy tizzy when, one seemingly ordinary afternoon, the ancient woman living upstairs is murdered. Isabel Czerny, a famed pianist, is found stabbed in the neck multiple times with a pair of shears. But whodunit? Was it Barbara DeMarco, the stylist who was ostensibly one of Isabel's friends? Tony Whitcomb, Barbara's flamboyant colleague who had been driven to near-madness by Isabel's constant playing? Perhaps Eddie Lawrence, an antique dealer who's giving Isabel one kind of business and Barbara another? Or Mrs. Shubert, the society-matron patron who may have a shocking amount to lose?

You see an unremarkable series of events unfold leading up to the mystery, with a heavy sprinkling of farce as not-yet suspects run in and out (often returning with stained clothes, stashed hands, or wielding eye-popping secrets), interact with each other in curious ways, and try to maintain a sense of normality in a world that's anything but. After the murder is revealed, the lead detective on the case opens the investigation up to you, wanting to know who remembers what, which alibis should be explored, and what it all means. The fact-finding continues through intermission and into the second act, when the audience votes on the guilty party and then the action drops to low-chaos to let you see if you're right.

There's nothing of note to care about in the script, which is loaded with archetypal characters (the boisterous, on-the-prowl Tony; the Margaret Dumont–like Mrs. Shubert; the wacky police underling; and so on) and, when the cast isn't improvising or interpolating riffs about the likes of Ben Carson and Lamar Odom, jokes that would have set eyes rolling a century or two ago ("You know what I did?", Tony says at one point. "I went down to my tailor Juan Gabriel? And I said, 'Juan, necesito algo que es muy hermosa.' And he says to me, 'Tony, I don't speak Spanish.'"). But the thoroughly grilled and drilled company of actors (under Jordan's own direction) ensures that, once the focus turns to the house, things take off big-time. The audience's questions and (hopefully) eagle eyes push the cast and the story in new directions, and reveal a bewilderingly in-depth amount of detail beneath the craziness. (The script reportedly runs 150 pages.)

That's what makes Shear Madness so special despite its pedestrian underpinnings: You're seeing the purest expression of theatre, with the performers and audience in such inextricable, symbiotic communion that they must create something bigger together than would otherwise be possible. If all of this were done straight, as-is, it would be a total failure, and most likely a total bore; the rampant stereotypes and here-and-now "pandering" ("I'm not from around here. I'm from out of town." "No foolin'? Whereabouts?" "Astoria.") get old within the first 10 minutes. But once the buildup is complete and you're calling the shots (holding characters to account for their lies, interrogating them about what they were doing and when), it all seems to have a purpose, however fluffy. And being in the midst of it while it's all going down is delectable, even if nothing that results is emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually redeeming.

Jordan's New York cast includes Kate Middleton as Barbara, Jordan Ahnquist as Tony, Jeremy Kushnier (Footloose, Jesus Christ Superstar) as Eddie, Lynne Wintersteller (Closer Than Ever) as Mrs. Shubert, and Patrick Noonan and Adam Gerber as the lead investigator and his sidekick. To my eye, they were impeccable and unflappable, maintaining character and thorough composure and coming up with razor-edged retorts on the fly. None of them delved into deep psychological nuances of the people they were playing, but so what? Given everything that unfolds and how any pretense of a fourth wall is obliterated within the first few seconds, taking any of this too seriously would probably have seemed like an intrusion.

The sitcom-broad set (by Will Cotton, who also designed the lights) and costumes (coordinated by Rodney Harper) provide the necessary, limited doses of reality, and stretch the canvas on which we're able to hang our illusions. Beyond that, the silliness and unseen, unscripted artistry are what drive the day, and they couldn't be better honed. Shear Madness may be a record-breaker, but it's no classic; it's barely even memorable. But at proving just how joyously much can be made of so little, it's a sparkling success. Whether it runs as long in the dog-eat-dog theatre climate of New York as it has in other places remains to be seen. If, however, it's still cutting hair and cutting up two decades from now, I, for one, won't be the least surprised—or disappointed.

Shear Madness
Through February 28
New World Stages / Stage 4, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets and current performance schedule: Telecharge

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