The second-longest-running play in American theater history, “Shear Madness,” has done it again by enticing its established audience out for another night of murder mystery fun and gaining new fans at the same time. It is up to you, the audience, to solve the crime, so this whodunit comedy and improv show all rolled into one is sure to keep you on your toes the whole time.
This past Sunday, I went to the Kennedy Center to see Shear Madness, having no clue what “audience sleuthing” meant in the description of the production. I assumed it would be like a typical murder mystery dinner and, thankfully, I was wrong. As actors Tonya Beckman (as Barbara DeMarco), Jarreau Williams (as Mikey Thomas), Bob Lohrmann (as Tonny Whitcomb), Brit Herring (as Eddie Lawrence), James Whalen (as Nick Rossetti) and Ann Stone (as Mrs. Shubert) wittily delivered political and pop culture commentary, I sat next to 200 high school students from Bowling Green, Ky., laughing out loud like the 9.6 million other people who have already seen the play.
Set in a unisex Georgetown hair salon, “Shear Madness” is a story about detectives Nick Rossetti and Mikey Thomas’ attempt to solve the murder of famed concert pianist Isabel Czerny, who lived in the apartment above the hair salon. The detectives employ a unique strategy: They allow audience members, who bear witness to the murder in the first half of the play, to help solve the crime during the second half. Audience members ask questions and offer help as the cast replays what happened before the discovery of Isabel, stabbed to death by a pair of hair cutting shears.
Each character stands to gain from the death of Ms. Czerny. The pianist’s constant playing is driving Tonny Whitcomb, the gay hairstylist, mad. Barbara DeMarco is the sole benefactor in Ms. Czerny’s will until the day before, when Isabel decides otherwise. The pianist thinks Eddie Lawrence, a shady antiques dealer, is blackmailing her so that he can acquire her grand piano. Mrs. Shubert, a Georgetown socialite, recently recovered alcoholic and busy body, just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And yet while the plotline and characters remain, the murderer is a different person each time the play is performed. During each performance, the skilled improv actors are able to tailor the ending to the audience’s desire. When I went, the killer was Barbara DeMarco, the woman who would gain the most from Isabel’s death. Since this audience didn’t buy Barbara’s sob story about being friends with Isabel and not caring that she had just been cut out of the will, Barbara cracks and confesses. While this part may not have been written into the play, it fits in seamlessly with the rest of the story.
“Shear Madness” takes the typical whodunit comedy to another level. By allowing audience members to be active participants in the production, the play captures the attention of an audience in a way many plays cannot. The production allows those watching to test out their ability to pay attention to detail while also throwing everything they thought they knew out of the window at the end. Audiences have returned to watch the play again and again because it’s exciting to know that the ending may be different each time you see the play.
On this occasion, the murder was because of money, but the next time, it may be because Isabel’s incessant piano playing pushes Tonny’s last button; or it may be because the Georgetown socialite Mrs. Shubert has reverted back to being an alcoholic and done something nonsensical. You just never know. If you like surprises, pop culture or political commentary you will enjoy this play. The concept of Shear Madness is sheer genius.
The play runs through Saturday, March 31 at the Kennedy Center.