Even prior to the opening of Shear Madness, the audience is drawn into the world of the play. A realistic set is built on the thrust stage of the Kennedy Center’s Theater Lab. The aqua blue walls, pink seating, and coordinated tile floor indicate to the audience the Shear Madness Salon of Georgetown. As the audience is being seated, 10 minutes before showtime, actors come onstage in character. House lights are still up and music is playing as if it is coming from a radio in the salon, so the actors are speaking to each other, but not loud enough to be heard by the audience. We are treated to what is essentially a comic pantomime as the salon’s owner and assistant open up for the first customers of the day. By the time the houselights dim, the music turns down and the actors speak up, we are already captured, because the physical clowning is expertly done and has already given us insights into what these characters are like.
Barbara (Nora Palka) is a gum-chewing, tightly-skirted assistant in the Shear Madness Salon, owned by the fantastically gay, and rather inept stylist, Tony (Michael Litchfield). The first customer, Mike (Adi Stein) wants a haircut, but is in a hurry. Eddie (Nick Depinto) comes in for his cut, but might be here for other purposes, as he has some history with Barbara, presumably a troubled romance. With the exception of the names, all of this is clear prior to any words being shared with the audience. Once houselights dim and music is lowered, we meet Nick (Joe Mallon) and Mrs. Shubert (Maureen Kerrigan), other customers in a hurry. Without giving away too many details, the show shifts when we learn that Nick and Mike are cops who begin questioning everyone else about the murder of Tony’s landlord, who lives upstairs in the building. The majority of the show is the attempt by the police and the audience to find who is responsible for the murder. However, the interesting premise of this show which makes it standout is the degree to which the audience is involved with the investigation.
Shear Madness has many reasons/accomplishments that make it successful. Like many great theater experiences, it is laugh-out-loud funny and draws the audience into the world of its characters. If that is not enough to win you over, the comedy has other means to entice you. It is a whodunit with stereotypical characters that we know and appreciate, humor that uses huge blobs of shaving cream, wordplay with malaprops and bad puns, and terrific acting, all of which are tried and true ingredients for good theater. Using less traditional means, the play is interactive and the audience is directed to raise their hands or shout out questions and ideas about the suspects, which steers the direction of the production. Line changes also use up-to-the-minute references to topical current events and the audience loved it. These 30 year-old innovations still seem fresh and based on the reaction last night, offered a theater experience which was different from the norm for most in the audience.
I wonder how often the actors add new topical material. There is some improvisation in Shear Madness, as the actors have to respond to the audience, but the majority is clearly well rehearsed with many potential directions the performance might go on any particular night. Mallon (Nick) occasionally broke up when Litchfield (Tony) added something to his ad libs, and I was reminded of Harvey Korman trying to hide his laughter at Tim Conway in sketches from television’s Carol Burnett show. The audience seemed to love the breaking of character, but I felt it was one of the few moments that seemed less honest.
I am fascinated by the enduring popularity of Shear Madness. The Kennedy Center production holds the Guinness world record as the second longest-running play in the United States. The only play with a longer run is the Boston production of Shear Madness which opened 7 years earlier, in 1980. When a play runs for so long, you get a chance to fix problems. I noted that the material for all the furniture that was close to the audience was made of clear acrylic, so audience members in the front rows would not have any of their sightlines blocked. That is the kind of detail that theaters often don’t get a chance to fix before the show opens. With a 27-year run at The Kennedy Center, Shear Madness has ironed out even the little issues and last night offered a hilarious evening to a very appreciative audience.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
Shear Madness plays in an open run at The Kennedy Center Theater Lab -2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.