With its candy-colored set and rapid-fire dialogue, the nation’s second-longest running play “Shear Madness” proves why it has enjoyed such continued success. The show combines comedy hijinks, witty improvisation and a gamut of contemporary cultural references into a classic murder mystery whodunit similar to “The Mousetrap,” but with far more laughs.
Originally slated for a 12-week run in August 1987 at the Kennedy Center, “Shear Madness” is still going strong nearly three decades later in the Kennedy Center Theater Lab. The relatively small venue seats only 388 people, but it soon becomes apparent that the intimate setting is a strength the production plays on, as there is an entire segment devoted to audience interaction. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “armchair detective” when the audience is enlisted to take part in solving the murder mystery with the help of the actors, and it contributes significantly to the zany charm of “Shear Madness.”
Clocking in at about two hours with intermission, the play wastes no time in setting up the central conceit of the plot — the murder — before plunging right into the mystery solving. Within a few minutes of beginning, the audience is introduced to the entire cast of six—the flamboyant hairdresser Tony Whitcomb (Michael Litchfield), fellow hairdresser Barbara DeMarco (Nora Palka), longtime customer Mrs. Schubert (Maureen Kerrigan), the oily Eddie Lawrence (Nick DePinto) as well as the two detectives, Nick O’Brien (Joe Mallon) and Mike Thomas (Adi Stein). After an opening scene featuring physical comedy and wordplay galore, it is revealed that Isabelle, the old landlady and ex-piano virtuoso living above the salon, has been murdered via hairdressing shears to the throat.
With all of the characters having plausible motives to murder her, detective Nick O’Brien requires some help in untangling the sticky situation and finding the murderer. This is where the highlight of the play comes in — lights flash, and the cast abruptly breaks the fourth wall. The audience is then given free rein to spot the difference in the characters’ re-enactment of everything leading up to the discovery of the murder and to question the motives of the characters.
There is something very meta about immediately revisiting the opening scene and trying to dissect it to recall the exact details of who said what or who did that, and the ending reveal only cements that impression. Based on a vote taken near the end of the play, the true criminal can be any of the cast sans the two detectives, and the the show plays out accordingly. Thus, the ending of the play changes based on the whims of the audience that night, keeping up with the production’s promise to deliver a new show every night.
Despite tackling a grim subject like murder, the play remains light-hearted throughout. Any moment of potential tension is quickly undercut by a pun or a quip from another character, and as a result, the play moves at a brisk pace with no time for lengthy soliloquies or pensive emoting. The exception is the confession scene that occurs towards the end after the characters revert to behind the fourth wall, where the revealed criminal monologues about his or her motives to commit the crime.
While necessary for plot resolution and definitely the opportune time for the actor in question to bust out his or her full acting chops, the ending scene feels rather out of beat with the rest of the play. That being said, “Shear Madness” is not a play given to lingering, and the confession scene quickly transits to the last humorous reveal that the ending could have gone any of four ways.
What truly carries the performance is the cast. In a setting where so much of the payoff is connected to comedic timing and improvisation, credit must be given particularly to Litchfield for imbuing Tony with much of the physicality required to breathe life into his sometimes over-the-top character, and to Mallon for playing the straight-thinking man to the rest of the cast (and audience) as the detective in charge of questioning everyone.
Given that the central plot of the play is more or less irrelevant and paper-flimsy at best, the bulk of the production’s entertainment value comes in the snipes traded between the characters and the level of audience participation in interacting with the cast. The actors do their jobs beautifully in terms of the latter, be it a pointed “Bye Felicia!” to a cheeky high schooler in the crowd or a wink-wink-nudge-nudge moment shared with the audience.
The back-and-forth between the cast and the audience definitely added to the energy levels. As a whole, the laughs were continuous as “Shear Madness” proved its universal appeal in entertaining a crowd ranging from high schoolers to working professionals.
However, it must be said that the play’s strength in making the audience laugh also occasionally became its weakness. Besides a few noteworthy zingers (“She took Viagra because she heard that it improves pianist performance!”) and moments of off-the-cuff improvisation, the laughs seem to come mostly from predictable punchlines or references to current-day headlines (“If I wanted to kill her, I’d take her for a car ride with Bruce Jenner.”) with all the subtlety of a brick to the head.
It can also be argued that the characters, particularly Tony, were broadly drawn and largely adhered to stereotypes, although this is perhaps lampshaded when Barbara tells Tony that “you are becoming such a stereotype!” Considering the constraints of the format of the play, however, one could also see it as the characters being ultimately secondary to the centerpiece of the play, the interaction between cast and audience.
Frothy and enjoyable, “Shear Madness” is a prime example of lighthearted entertainment with a unique twist, proven by its popularity worldwide with over 91 productions, 60,000 performances and translations into over 18 languages. However, if one’s tastes with regard to comedy do not run towards slapstick and burlesque, this might not be the play for you. Nonetheless, as a staple of the Washington D.C. theater scene for the past few decades, it is definitely worth checking out.