BWW Review: After 36 Years, Boston Interactive Murder Mystery SHEAR MADNESS Finally Hits New York
After 36 years of out-of-town tryouts in Boston, and worldwide success that includes 28 years in D.C., the campy murder mystery hit Shear Madness finally comes to New York as one of those genial, smile-inducing efforts best suited for venues that allow you to bring your alcoholic refreshments to your seats.
Playwriting credit is billed to German psychologist Paul Pörtner, though it's unlikely he wrote much of what remains of the continually updated script since the good doctor passed on in 1984. Originally titled SCHERENSCHNITT ("silhouette" in English) and written in 1963, the play was used for studies to examine people's perceptions of reality. Set in a unisex hair salon, SCHERENSCHNITT involved the off-stage murder of a concert pianist. After watching the brief play, subjects were asked to name the murderer among six stereotypical characters.
In the hands of original adaptor/producers Bruce Jordan (who also directs) and Marilyn Abrams, the goals of the retitled Shear Madness are less scientific. Those who remember the 1980s heyday of audience participation murder mysteries that featured open bars to ensure more participation will catch on right away.
The fourth wall is in place for the first part of the action set at the Shear Madness Salon. There's no plot, but a lot of suspicious activity, as we watch interactions between stylists - the flamboyant twink Tony (Jordan Ahnquist, terrific with the wisecracks) and thickly outer-boroughs accented Barbara (Kate Middleton) - and customers. There's the haughty socialite Mrs. Shubert (Lynne Wintersteller) and businessman Eddie (Jeremy Kushnier), who deals in "used antiques."
The comedy is so loaded up with topical and regional one-liners you might expect portions of the script to read "insert name of local notable involved in a sex scandal" or "insert location known for annoying hipsters." Gags about Donald Trump, the Mets' World Series loss and Ben Carson are currently featured, and, of course, saying "Gowanus" is always good for a laugh.
The evening picks up considerably once the pianist who lives in the apartment above is discovered to be dead and two more customers are revealed to be a New York City Police Lieutenant (Nick O'Brien) and his eager underling (Adam Gerber).
The big-voiced, barrel-chested O'Brien, a veteran of several Shear Madness productions, expertly plays with the audience when the house lights go up, questioning them as witnesses. There's plenty of individual interaction with customers and any reports of suspicious activity on the part of the characters has the actors desperately, and comically, trying to explain themselves.
The method by which it's decided who the murderer is will not be revealed here, but obviously this is the kind of show where no two performances are going to be alike.
If the goofball script is packed with more groaners than legit laughs, the hard-working and likeable ensemble works admirably. The show may not exactly build up to the kind of madness promised, but the mindless silliness has its charms.