Review: ‘Shear Madness’

Has success spoiled "Shear Madness?" Watching the local premiere of the comedy-mystery, which holds the record as the longest-running play in many American cities, one wonders if its appeal has gotten lost somewhere.

Has success spoiled “Shear Madness?” Watching the local premiere of the comedy-mystery, which holds the record as the longest-running play in many American cities, one wonders if its appeal has gotten lost somewhere.

The basic premise — the audience helps interrogate the suspects and ultimately chooses the guilty party — remains fun. But the whole point of such a format is to foster spontaneity, and very little seemed unrehearsed or genuinely improvised opening night at the Santa Monica Improv.

The play is not so much a parody of a murder mystery as a standard mystery with jokes attached. Someone, it seems, has killed the elderly pianist who owns (and lives directly above) the Shear Madness Unisex Hair Salon.

Is it Tony, the flamboyantly gay proprietor of the establishment, who was always getting into arguments with his landlady? His gum-chewing female assistant? Or perhaps one of their two customers this particular afternoon, a shady businessman or an indignant socialite?

After the hard-nosed police detective interrogates each of them, he invites the audience to join in — first by helping to re-create what took place just before the crime, and then by actively questioning the suspects. This is where the show should soar, but instead, it begins to sag.

It quickly becomes clear that, after thousands and thousands of performances, the creators have anticipated every question or comment an audience member might conceivably make. They have come up with rejoinders to each of them, which the actors apparently file away in their brains for use at the proper moment.

One can only guess what the show was like 15 years ago in Boston, when the actors were truly winging it. That might have been a lot more fun than the version we are seeing here.

Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan, who re-wrote a serious 1965 play by Paul Portner into this farce, tailor the show for each city where it appears.

The Los Angeles production thus contains references to such loyal institutions as the Pantages Theater and Army Archerd’s column in Daily Variety. In an effort to be topical, it also includes throwaway lines about such currently hot celebrity couples as Burt & Loni and Beavis & Butt-Head.

These jokes miss more often than they hit, but — at least before the plot mechanics slow the piece down in Act Two — they come at a fast enough pace to produce a fair number of laughs.

The performers, working in a deliberately broad style, do good work under Jordan’s direction. Tony gets the best lines, and Patrick Shea, who performed the role for years with the Boston production, displays a well-honed sense of comic timing. Jordan’s set design, dominated by truly terrible yellow wallpaper, is appropriately tacky.

Shear Madness

(Downstairs at the Improv, Santa Monica; 287 seats; $ 31.50 top)

Production

Veronica Chambers, by special arrangement with Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan, presents a play by Paul Portner. Director, designer, Jordan; producer, Veronica Chambers, presented in association with Nina Andro; lighting and sound coordination, Michael Cousins; costume coordination, Teri McConnell. Opened, reviewed Oct. 26, 1993. Runs indefinitely.

Cast

Barbara DeMarco ... Leslie Sachs Mike Thomas ... Matt K. Miller Tony Whitcomb ... Patrick Shea Edward Lawrence ... Michael Rothhaar Nick O'Brien ... Matt Callahan Mrs. Shubert ... Betsy Zang
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