'Shear Madness': Theater Review

Shear Madness - H 2015
Courtesy of Carol Rosegg
Check your brains at the door, and you'll have a good time.

The interactive comic whodunnit set in a hair salon finally arrives in NYC after running for decades in such cities as Boston and Washington, D.C.

It's hard to imagine why theater-loving tourists still come to New York when we seem so intent on delivering the same product they can get at home. Case in point: Shear Madness, the interactive, comic murder mystery that's become a theatrical institution in Boston, where it's been running 36 years, and Washington, D.C. ( 28 years), as well as in myriad other cities around the globe. Now, a mere 37 years after the show premiered at a dinner theater in Lake George, N.Y., it's arrived off-Broadway for an open-ended run in the hope that similar lightning will strike.

The creators might have waited a little too long, as interactive entertainments seemed to have peaked in popularity years ago with Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding and its ilk. But judging by the enthusiastic audience at a recent matinee, perhaps there's still an appetite for this sort of thing.

To be fair, there's a reason that Shear Madness has been a long-running hit despite endless critical carping. It's genuinely funny, albeit in a lowbrow way that requires checking your brains at the door. This version, staged in its usual fashion with local references and up-to-the-minute jokes, lacks the specificity that has made the show so endearing to other cities (there is, however a funny reference to the "Gowanus Canal Kayaking Club"). But a talented cast mostly succeeds in bringing it to comic life.

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Set in a hairdressing salon at the corner of 9th Avenue and 50th Street — a stone's throw from the theater where it's playing — the show is an adaptation (obviously a very loose one) by Bruce Jordan and Marilyn Abrams of Scherenschnitte, a 1963 work by German playwright Paul Portner, who died in 1984.

Be sure to arrive early, as the action begins before curtain time with very funny bits of physical business involving flamboyantly effete hairdresser Tony (Jordan Ahnquist) and trashy-looking assistant Barbara DeMarco (Kate Middleton, and no, not that one) as they attend to a hapless client.

As other customers arrive — including Mrs. Shubert (Lynne Wintersteller), a snooty Park Avenue matron, and Eddie (Jeremy Kushnier), a snippy, briefcase-toting "used antiques dealer" — the plot emerges. It concerns the murder of the salon's upstairs neighbor, an elderly former concert pianist whose constant playing drove Tony to distraction. Shortly afterwards, a pair of NYC detectives (Patrick Noonan, whose extensive experience in past productions of the show is readily apparent, and Adam Gerber) arrive to investigate the crime.

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And that's where the audience comes in. The house lights go up, and the cops request help in solving the case by providing key information; they ask questions of the characters who respond in alternately cooperative and defiantly surly fashion. Eventually, the crowd is invited to vote on who they think committed the murder, with the results then dramatized. This means, of course, that the ending can vary at every performance.

The script features a barrage of lame one-liners on the order of, "If I wanted to live that dangerously I'd go to Las Vegas with Lamar Odom," and predictable gags referencing Donald Trump, Ben Carson, etc. Director/co-creator Jordan is also far too fond of malapropisms, whether he's having the cop refer to a "Lebanese relationship," a suspect protest that he knows his "constipational rights," or a character referred to as a "genital liar."

But the overall atmosphere is so giddily loony that it becomes infectious, and the talented ensemble work so hard at getting laughs that their efforts are justly rewarded. The standouts are Noonan, accorded the lion's share of the audience interactions and proving to be deftly fast on his feet, and Ahnquist, mugging outrageously (some might say offensively) but hilariously. But all the performers shine in this silly show, which proves the definition of a guilty pleasure.

Cast: Jordan Ahnquist, Adam Gerber, Jeremy Kushnier, Kate Middleton, Patrick Noonan, Lynne Wintersteller
Playwright: Paul Portner
Director: Bruce Jordan
Set & lighting designer: Will Cotton
Costume designer: Rodney Harper
Sound designer: Bruce Landon Yauger
Presented by Manny Klauditis, Jeffrey Chrzczon, Terry Schnuck, Kahtleen K. Johnson, Jack Lane, Radio Mouse Entertainment, Schaffert/Hummel, Driemeyer-Sills Productions, David Gersten, Erach Screwvala, The Shubert Organization by special arrangement with Cranberry Productions