Talents Shine Bright in the Interactive Shear Madness at Stages

The setup:

Is it possible that the longest-running play in the United States is actually kind of a failure? Well, yes and no.

When Bruce Jordan and Marilyn Abrams created their audience participation murder mystery show, Shear Madness (a translation of German playwright Paul Pörtner’s play Scherenschnitt), they thought it would simply be a fun short-run summer show. But audiences loved it – a lot – so the pair took the play to Boston for eight weeks with the intention of making back their money and then moving the show to Manhattan. But something happened in Beantown that changed those plans. That something was success.

Turns out the show was such a hit that those eight weeks miraculously turned into a 30-plus-year run at Boston’s Charles Playhouse, where it still plays six days a week. And it isn’t just Boston that’s gaga about the show. Shear Madness has played to international audiences (and yes, finally to NYers in 2015) to the tune of almost $250 million.

So it would seem fair to say that while Jordan and Abrams’s initial plans for the show fell through, the sheer triumph of the play and the mad amount of money raked in qualify Shear Madness as one of the best successful failed ventures in theater ever.

The execution:

The play is set in a Houston hair salon, colorfully brought to life with aqua and red hues by Brad Kanouse. Well, Houston this time and in whatever other city the show is playing. Part of the appeal of Shear Madness is that it takes place in the audience’s hometown, allowing actors to drop references, comedic and otherwise, to street names, local personalities, sports teams, restaurants, etc. A running gag in which a River Oaks salon patron shudders every time the area around the Astrodome is mentioned got big laughs the night I attended.

Living upstairs from the salon is the famous (but now reclusive) concert pianist landlady Isabel Czerny. When she’s murdered, with everyone in the salon as a suspect, we the audience are enlisted to help solve the crime. But that’s not until just prior to the intermission. First we're given about an hour to observe the cast and formulate opinions on which one of them might be capable of murder. And there’s no doubt that this is a cast worth observing.

Tony, the flamboyantly gay salon owner, could have spiraled uncomfortably down the offensive-stereotype drain were it not for the saucy performance of Mark Ivy. Saltier than a street-side pretzel, Ivy’s Tony flirts, suggests, self-aggrandizes and wiggles his tush all over his salon like a naughty puppy you know you should punish but can’t help loving in spite of the pee all over the floor. Sure, he had a hate-on for Isabel, but could he have actually killed her?

Maybe it was Tony’s employee Barbara (Denise Fennell, once again showing why she’s one of Houston’s best character actresses) the stiletto-wearing, cleavage-heaving, gum-smacking wisecracker. After all, Barbara was friends with Isabel until she started trying to control her every move in true frenemy fashion.
That River Oaks woman I mentioned? Well, that’s Mrs. Shubert (played with terrifically luxe ease and a natural sense of comic timing by Deborah Hope), who popped into the salon to get her hair ready en route to Bermuda. She didn’t know Isabel per se, but we know something fishy is afloat with the wealthy woman thanks to her covert phone calls and suspicious behavior.

Rounding out the suspects is antiques dealer Eddie (a decidedly cagey Justin Doran), who was scheduled to meet with Isabel right after a quick haircut. Why does he keep going in and out of the salon? And is he having a secret affair with Barbara? And what's in the briefcase he keeps toting around?

The audience knows it’s supposed to be paying close attention, but I suspect that folks were too busy laughing at and with the larger-than-life characters as they skewered each other, inexplicably threw out continual malaprops, improvised and hit on current hot-potato issues. Jokes about the Clintons were met with roars. Jabs at Trump and Bernie got laughs as well. Showing how nimble Shear Madness is and how quickly the cast can adapt, a Pokémon line was thrown in. Interestingly (and awkwardly), a bit about inclusive bathrooms was met with a near boo. But it was soon forgotten as everyone got on board for a terrific Kanye West joke and collectively groaned when the Texans’ chances of making the Super Bowl were flattened.

By the time the detective, Nick (Josh Morrison, doing double duty as co-director with Mitchell Greco), and his sidekick, Mickey (Nathan Wilson), call for the houselights to go up so we can comment as witnesses, the crowd is pumped (some with copious amounts of liquid courage) and ready to participate.

It’s a dangerous thing to let your audience take control like that. What should be questions lobbed at the characters turn into speeches. Some questions are just plain dumb. And of course there’s the question that’s an obvious product of one too many cocktails. But thanks to Morrison’s firm but kind handling of the interactive elements both pre- and post-intermission, he allows Detective Nick to keep the chaos to a minimum. It also allows the characters being questioned to lash out hysterically at audience members who dare suspect them. Trust me, these actors give as good as they take, to great, guffawing audience glee.

The verdict:

At the end of the show, when we’re asked to vote on who did it and then listen to the guilty party’s confession (this part changes every night depending on whom the audience chooses), I can’t imagine anyone really cares who actually committed the murder, and that’s just fine. No one was there for a real nail-biting murder mystery after all. The audience came to laugh, interact and be part of a show.

For my taste, it’s a show that runs too close to middle-of-the-road sitcom genre humor. Cute modern/local references aside, my one real laugh came when Ivy’s Tony sprang a surprise gag on his cast mates, making them all fight to keep a straight face. Who doesn’t love watching actors cracking up other actors?

But this is a case where I can happily say, so what if it’s not my cuppa? Shear Madness is loads of fun for those who go in for this kind of stuff. More important, this production of Shear Madness, with its agile direction and über-talented/brave cast who act and improvise the hell outta the thing, ensures that the crowd it gathers walks away impressed with the whole shebang.

Me included.

Shear Madness runs through August 21 at Stages Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For tickets, call 713-527-0123 or visit $21-$52.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman