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A CurtainUp Review
Shear Madness
By Charles Wright
You call Astoria out of town? God! I call Astoria . . . I never call Astoria.— Tony the hairdresser.
Shear Madness
Lynne Wintersteller, Jeremy Kushnier, and Kate Middleton (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Shear Madness is a farcical murder mystery in which playgoers interrogate the actors about an off-stage crime, then air their views as to who-done-it. This six-character romp, which has played 36 consecutive years in Boston, 28 years in Washington, D.C., 18 in Chicago, and five each in Philadelphia and San Francisco, is now storming the barricades of Off-Broadway with hurricane velocity.

Though credited to German playwright Paul Pörtner, Shear Madness has been rewritten for the English-language stage by Bruce Jordan and Marilyn Abrams, with local references and topical jokes updated from time to time. Jordan, who has directed the play for New York (as he did for the cities with the long-running productions) keeps his cast moving at a frenetic pace all evening, except during the interactive sections when audience and actors confer.

Shear Madness takes place in the main room of a unisex hairdressing establishment in Hell's Kitchen (amusingly designed by Will Cotton in the spirit of the script's brand of comedy). The location is ostensibly just down the block from New World Stages, where the production is running.

The shop's youthful proprietor is Tony (Jordan Ahnquist), whose out-and-proud flamboyance provides occasion for jokes about gay stereotypes, references to the marriage-equality movement, and a couple of suggestive sight gags. Tony's sole employee is Barbara (Kate Middleton), whose attire and demeanor suggest she may be quite good at being bad.

The four other characters are patrons (or seeming patrons) of the salon. Mrs. Shubert (Lynne Wintersteller), a rich, East Side matron, is one of Barbara's regular customers. Nerdy Mike (Adam Gerber), oily Eddie (Jeremy Kushnier), and he-man Nick (Patrick Noonan) are evidently at the shop for more than a shave and a haircut, but their precise motivations aren't immediately discernible.

After an off-stage character is found dead and the gruesome death scene has been described, the play's action comes to a halt and the actors, always in character, offer themselves for questioning by the audience. The cast also circulates at intermission to keep the colloquy going.

In Act Two, the audience votes to determine who's considered the night's most likely culprit. At a recent performance, the banter among performers and spectators was lively; on a night with a more reticent audience, the experience would be quite different.

When the votes have been tallied, the actors turn back to the plot, accelerating toward the narrative's climax and denouement. At curtain call, one of the players makes a plea that patrons resist spilling any of the evening's secrets after leaving the theater. In deference to that request, no further details of plot or structure are disclosed here.

Suffice it to say that almost everything about Shear Madness is so flagrantly silly that it's easy to imagine Mr. Jordan and Ms. Abrams being wary of braving New York's super-competitive market when they were mounting the as-yet untried show in Boston almost 40 years ago. To be fair, the script is on a par with many shows featured recently at New World Stages like Clinton: The Musical and Heathers: The Musical. What's noteworthy is the cast. The six well-trained actors may not have imagined that, at this point in their careers, they'd be playing characters as flat and stereotypical as these; but their comedic and improvisational virtuosity and their funny, sometimes witty, ad libs make Shear Madness a reasonable choice for bachelorette parties, millennial date nights, and youth groups visiting from afar.

Shear Madness by Paul Pörtner
Director: Bruce Jordan
Cast: Jordan Ahnquist (Tony Whitcomb), Adam Gerber (Mike Thomas), Jeremy Kushnier (Eddie Lawrence), Kate Middleton (Barbara DeMarco), Patrick Noonan (Nick O'Brien), Lynne Wintersteller (Mrs. Shubert)
Scenic & Lighting Design: Will Cotton
Costume Design: Rodney Harper
Sound Design: Bruce Landon Yauger
Production Stage Manager: Danny Maly
Production Supervision: Tinc Productions
Running Time: Two hours with one intermission
Presented by Manny Kladitis, Jeffrey Chrzczon, Terry Schnuck, Kathleen K. Johnson, Jack Lane, Radio Mouse Entertainment, Schaffert/Hummel, Driemeyer-Sills Prodcutions, David Gersten, Erach Screwvala, and The Shubert Organization, by special arrangement with Cranberry Productions, Inc.
New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street
From 10/22/15; opened 11/11/15; open-ended
Reviewed by Charles Wright at a November 6th press performance
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