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Shear Madness

A Contrived Comedy That is Cut and Dry

By Erik Blankinship

Staff Writer

Charles Playhouse

74 Warrenton Street

Tickets: $34. For reservations, call (617) 426-5225.

Arriving at the Charles Playhouse to see Shear Madness, I felt as if I had entered the studio of a long-running syndicated sitcom. The set is a worn-down but permanent fixture, and the audience engages in bouts of synchronized laugh track style laughter at the silliest jokes. Since I wasn’t laughing at first, I chalked up the jovial mood at the bar at the back of the auditorium, which serves decently priced alcohol.

Laughter is contagious, and when everyone around me was doing it, I found myself joining in, in spite of myself. “America’s longest running comedy” is admittedly running low on belly laughs, but it does provide some good chuckles here and there as the mystery unfolds.

You’ve probably heard about Shear Madness. Almost everyone who ever took a junior high school trip to Washington, D.C., made the obligatory trip to the Kennedy Center and saw Shear Madness. The production lasted for over a decade there and is now being taken to other soon-to-be permanent venues like the Charles Playhouse in Boston.

If you are unfamiliar with the format, here is a brief introduction to the interactive theater of Sheer Madness. The actors in the play will, from time to time, turn to the audience for their opinions, impressions, and assistance in solving the mystery. Unlike improv comedy, where the actors must invent entire scenes and characters from audience suggestions, the actors in Shear Madness act out small choreographed vignettes. Pulled from a repertoire of responses to every conceivable audience comment, the prepared jokes are performed with good comic timing.

The acting is not forced, which is good given that the characters are mere caricatures. There is the Boston street cop, trying to get to the bottom of the mystery with the audience’s help. There is the gayer-than-gay hair dresser who flirts with the men in the audience. There is the old rich woman who scowls at the audience when they turn on her.

In a choose-your-own-adventure book, there are multiple endings to the story. You could put your finger on one page, and jump ahead to the different endings. And most of these endings (sometimes roughly) completed the story. Not so in Shear Madness. Despite my effort to just enjoy the hackneyed jokes, I found myself groping for some semblance of a plot in vain. But this is no whodunit; this is who cares, with some jokes thrown in for passing the time.

Someone is killed, everyone could have done it, and in the end, nothing adds up one way or the other. The mystery is that the plot really doesn’t matter. But by the end of the night you laughed a little, right?

Unlike those choose-your-own-adventure books, you probably won’t find yourself going back to the Charles Playhouse to see how the different endings unfold. But seeing it once makes for a pretty good time. Then again, you could just wait several years until you are a chaperone on your own kid’s field trip to D.C. or Boston -- Shear Madness will probably still be playing then.