Extended out-of-town tryouts are the stuff of legend — but 36 years? “Shear Madness,” the audience-participation murder mystery with franchises all over the country and beyond, was originally intended to open in New York after a 1980 Boston tryout. But Beantown audiences were so receptive that the show just kept running … and running … and running. The comedy still isn’t sharp enough for Gotham, but the show’s improvisational nature demands constant topical updates — and New Yorkers won’t be shy about telling the company where to go.
After all these years (and productions in cities including D.C. and Chicago), the show has finally landed at Off Broadway’s New World Stages, a five-stage multiplex designed for young audiences and casual theatergoing. It’s the ideal venue for this freewheeling comedy, which depends on active participation from fully-engaged audiences, who are hereby advised to take notes on all the comings and goings in the first act.
That means keeping a sharp eye on all the characters on stage, including their exits and entrances and the props they pick up, put down, and throw out. One of them — and none of the performers knows which one — will be voted the murderer by the audience. But not before they are all grilled by a plainclothes detective who has been hiding in plain view, and who depends on you to call them out when they lie to him about where they were and what they were doing when an offstage murder took place.
That’s the fun part of the show, and it owes a lot to Patrick Noonan, a broad-chested, big-voiced actor who plays Nick O’Brien, the undercover cop who makes the suspects in this farce re-enact their movements leading up to the murder, and who also orchestrates the Q&A session with the audience. The veteran performer has played this pivotal character in a number of cities, and he holds the show together.
The not-so-fun part of the show is the first act, which sets up the murder and introduces us to all the slippery suspects.
The mise en scene is the same as in the 1963 play by German author Paul Portner from which this comic farce was adapted by director Bruce Jordan, who was also the show’s original producer. We’re in a unisex hairdressing salon, supposedly right around the corner from the theater at 50th and Ninth Avenue. Set designer Will Cotton has done the place up in appropriately tacky style, and the furnishings and props are so realistic you can practically feel your eyes watering from the toxic chemicals in the air.
Shear Madness, the name of the salon, might also apply to its owner, a throwback gay screamer named Tony Whitcomb (Jordan Ahnquist, so irritating he got my vote as the murderer). His assistant, Barbara DeMarco (Kate Middleton, who knows exactly what she’s doing), may look like a hooker from the olden days of Hell’s Kitchen, but she’s a smart cookie and she obviously runs this business pretty much single handedly.
Outside of Lieutenant O’Brien and his undercover colleague, Mike Thomas (Adam Gerber), the remaining characters are stereotypical patrons doubling as suspects. Unfortunately, none of them is murdered; the victim is the concert pianist in the apartment above the shop.
There’s no story to speak of, just a lot of frantic coming and going (very well paced by Jordan) to confuse the audience (second reminder: take notes!) and lots of lousy jokes. Lots and lots of lousy jokes. Some of them, like the double entendres and the corny burlesque routines, are supposed to be bad.
But there’s also topical comedy that’s meant to get real laughs. And maybe it will, once the company settles into the city and gets a better feel for the local humor. (Hint: we’re nastier than Boston, not as politically plugged-in as Washington, and we’re flattered when you call us cynical). The game-playing structure of the show is cleverly designed and very well executed. And the audience participation is silly fun. But if you want to stick around town for a while, you really have to get to know us better.