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18-Years is Shear Madness

By Vladimir Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

At Charles Playhouse Stage II, 74 Warrenton St., Boston. Call 451-0195 for information.

Written by Paul Portner Directed and designed by Bruce Jordan With Mark S. Cartier, Chandra Pieragostini, Patrick Shea, Richard Snee, Michael Fennimore, Ellen Colton.

Here's a pop quiz for you: what is the longest-running non-musical play in American theater history? Choices are (a) Hamlet, (b) A Streetcar Named Desire, (c) Our Town, (d) none of the above.

The correct answer is (d). The play in question is Shear Madness - a comedy/murder mystery, which has been running in more than thirty cities around the world since its Boston premier in January 1980. The Boston production, by the way, is in the Guinness Book of Records, with more than 7,500 performances. It has shattered the records and has garnered a cult-like following. in fact, The Tech has already reviewed it three times. All three older reviews praise the show; let me now pitch in with a markedly different take on the matter.

When a play (or a novel, a movie) proclaims itself a murder mystery (and Shear Madness does so openly with its tagline "Boston's hilarious whodunit"), it places itself squarely into an established genre niche, and certain genre conventions are expected. For example, I'm looking for a number of intriguing characters, all - or at least most - of whom have hidden motives; a spectacular murder; an brilliant detective, who should spend the bulk of time locating the carefully placed clues and unraveling the mystery; and the conclusion, which should both be completely surprising and make me feel like a total idiot for not discovering it earlier myself.

Shear Madness has another aim in mind, in that it wants to double as a comedy, which it nearly pulls off. The set is a barbershop (complete with running water in the sink), eye-catching and ugly in a very realistic manner (yellow wallpaper, anyone?). The ten minutes before the play itself starts are by far the funniest, so arrive early if you decide to go. For these ten minutes, three characters - the shop owner, his assistant, and a hapless customer - are engaged in some quite funny silent visual activities. The jokes are very simple (the assistant tries to pick up the ringing phone without smearing her nail polish, the flamboyantly gay owner makes a pass at the customer, etc.), but the easygoing, off-hand manner in which all of this is presented makes the proceedings quite endearing.

Then the dialogue starts and slowly but surely things go downhill. The infusion of crude topical humour (for example: "If I wanted to kill her, I'd...take her skiing!") is fine at first, but quickly grows wearisome. The acting is pitched way too high, with more screaming than I care for. The characters are defined in very broad strokes, and only a couple of them really feel interesting (the shop owner and the malapropping Boston Police officer, in particular).

But these flaws aren't what made me dislike the show as much as I did - it was the play itself. Written by Swiss playwright Paul Portner as a serious murder mystery and then reworked into a comedy by American producers, Shear Madness completely fails as a mystery by ignoring all rules of the genre. The murder itself is off-stage, with the murder victim never even appearing (which makes it quite impossible to care a smidgen for her). The ending of the first act - the reconstruction of the events that preceeded the crime - is tedious and ultimately pointless, since it basically replays the entire first act again, which the audience has just finished seeing.

The pace picks up a bit with the second act, where the audience gets a chance to interrogate the suspects (my favorite bit: one suspect claims he was brushing his teeth when the murder took place, and, when asked to confirm, takes out a toothbrush and flicks it at the audience, to prove that it's really wet). The finale, though, is a crushing disappointment. A good mystery explores the consequences of minor events and plot points, some of which are red herrings, and some are expertly disguised clues. Shear Madness, on the other hand, revels in its complete inconsequentiality - nothing that happened on stage has any bearing on the resolution whatsoever.

Now, for the real mystery: why does this show, so lightweight that it evaporates from memory even before it's over, have such a powerful grip on the theater-going public? The answer is, I think, in its ever-changing nature. A couple of years ago Newt Gingrich jokes abounded; now it's the humor about sex in Oval Office. The audience-interaction part turns Shear Madness into some sort of improv stand-up comedy, with the actors improvising (frequently amusing) responses to the viewers' questions. This, I presume, makes it interesting to see the play many times, observing how it changes with time, and thinking about the characters as old acquaintances. While not the worst social activity I can think of, you definitely don't get your money's worth ($28 a pop). An evening with friends will prove more entertaining. Granted, the chances of a murder happening upstairs are slim, but you're less likely to feel cheated in the end.