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Shear Madness asks "Whodunnit?" with humor

SHEAR MADNESS

Written by Paul Portner.

Directed by Bruce Jordan.

Starring Bette Cloud

and Thomas Ouellette.

Reviewed Feb. 5, 8 pm.

Plays indefinitely at

Charles Playhouse, Boston.

By BRIAN ROSENBERG

ATRIP TO THE THEATER DISTRICT is one of those things that makes living in Boston worthwhile, despite all the car theft and miserable weather. Brightly-lit marquees and warm restaurants beckon as you walk down Stuart Street. Round the corner onto Warrenton, and you will behold the Charles Playhouse. It's not much to behold, actually, and you may have some trouble finding the door. Your trip downstairs will be well worth it, though, if you catch Shear Madness, a delightful interactive "comedy whodunit."

There's no real hurry, though. Madness, which is the longest-running non-musical play in US history, just began its 12th year at the Charles with an all-new cast. Don't go expecting sophisticated humor and subtlety, because Madness is funny like Mel Brooks, funny like stand-up comedy. This is not the kind of play you go to with your parents, because they might look at you suspiciously if you laugh at all the jokes.

Shear Madness takes place in a unisex hair salon of the same name on Newbury Street in Boston. The set is cheerfully disgusting, decorated just like that barber shop your mother made you go to when you were six. The wallpaper is a garish pink and green floral print, matched only by the putrescent green of the chairs and the flamboyance of the characters. They're caricatures, but they're not ashamed of it. In fact, the characters' one-dimensionality gives the actors freedom to develop the parts themselves, particularly during the ad-libbed parts of the play. These improvisations, along with the unique (except for the Rocky Horror Picture Show) element of audience participation, make the play.

Madness' plot centers around the murder of a famed concert pianist, Isabel Czerny, who lives in an apartment above the salon. Before her untimely death, the slightly eccentric Ms. Czerny had become involved in some curious dealings with a few people, all of whom, coincidentally, happen to be getting their hair done when she is killed. The police burst in, and that's when the fun begins. As they attempt to reconstruct the events immediately preceding Czerny's death, the audience points out things the actors (each of whom has a motive, of course) are trying to hide.

Eleanor Bradford Shubert, played by Bette Cloud, is a wealthy socialite from Beacon Hill. She seems to be cheating on her husband, and is something of a kleptomaniac, but her possible connection with Czerny's death is unclear. Cloud's performance is adequate, and her looks of shocked indignation are extremely convincing, but she was not particularly entertaining.

Eddie Lawrence (Ed Peed) is an antiques dealer with a history of shady dealings, including the sale of waterfront property in Worcester. He had a meeting with Czerny scheduled at about her time of death, ostensibly to work out a deal for her piano. The police, however, believe he was also going to blackmail her about her affair with the shop's assistant. Peed's character is reserved and remains silent for much of the play, but pleads his innocence with a cool head and admirable intensity.

Barbara DeMarco (Paula Langton), who managed to put Mrs. Shubert's hair into curlers during the short time when she wasn't both chewing her gum and painting her nails, was perfect as a ditzy shop assistant. I have a lot of respect for Langton, who (as far as I could tell) chewed the same piece of gum for the entire duration of the play. DeMarco's motives for the murder were the most complicated, including her status as chief beneficiary of Czerny's will, her possible sexual involvement with Czerny, and her possible sexual involvement with Lawrence.

Tony Whitcomb (Thomas Ouellette), the shop's flagrantly homosexual proprietor, is always annoyed by Czerny's incessant work at the piano, and fears that he is losing customers because of it. Wearing a pink shirt, pink belt and pink-trimmed sneakers, Ouellette struts across the stage beautifully, often twirling himself into the unsuspecting arms of one male or the other.

The police officers, played by Nick Rossetti and Richard Snee, are both very good in their own way. Rossetti serves well as a dumb, swaggering Boston cop, though he's too Italian to be as Irish as he needs to be. He misspells words like "vote" and "scissors" and runs his mouth a lot. Snee, as Rossetti's partner, affected a dazed, slow manner that was quietly funny.

Whitcomb is easily the most engaging character, in large part because the role is so extreme and draws laughter easily. Ouellette's contribution is significant, however. His mannerisms were superb, and his improvisations stood out from the others. One is particularly clear in my mind: Whitcomb is defending himself from charges that he killed Czerny, saying that if he had killed her, he certainly wouldn't have done it with barber's scissors (the murder weapon). "What would you have killed her with?" asks Lieutenant Nick Rossetti. "I don't know -- a knife, or a gun. Or I'd put her on the Green Line." Responding quickly to the tide of laughter, Ouellette added "I've been hit from behind on the Green Line before. I rammed into an abutment."

Sexual, and especially homosexual, jokes such as these were a staple. I suggest that you avoid this play if such jokes offend you, because you will be offended. The humor, even when not directly sexual, was certainly raw. During the audience participation, some jokes were turned outward, usually as attacks on a particular theory or its supporter. Some of the funniest jokes were specific to Boston, with a strong emphasis on jokes about the Boston Police. By far the best thing about Shear Madness, though, was being involved. There is nothing quite like giving an onstage performer a suggestion and having him act on it.

So who killed Isabel Czerny? I'm not going to tell you. Go find out yourself.