by Ryan Leeds
New York audiences now have the unfortunate opportunity to experience what millions of theatergoers in Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago, Barcelona, Paris, Rome, Melbourne and other global cities have endured: Shear Madness. This supposedly hilarious “comedy” holds the Guinness record for being the longest running play in the United States, which supports my belief that bad taste, when accompanied by strong buzz and the power of suggestion, can be blindly packaged and sold to the masses.
Shear Madness takes place in unisex beauty salon with an array of lively personalities. Dizzy blonde Barbara DeMarco (Kate Middleton) holds court with her “so gay he could fly away” fellow stylist, Tony Whitcomb (Jordan Ahnquist). The pair’s customers include police officers Mike Thomas (Adam Gerber) and Nick O’Brien (Patrick Noonan). We also meet businessman Eddie Lawrence (Jeremy Kushnier), and a wealthy socialite, Mrs. Shubert (Lynne Wintersteller). The fact that all of these characters would get their hair done at the same place is in itself implausible. One might be able to suspend disbelief if a never-ending string of predictable lame jokes and worn out depictions didn’t follow.
Before Act I ends, a murder has taken place. A famous concert pianist, who resides above the salon, is stabbed with a pair of barber shears. In order to determine the murderer, the audience is encouraged to interact with the cast, asking them to recreate the chain of events from the beginning of the show. Had I the opportunity to retrace my own steps, I would have guided them anywhere but New World Stages, where the only heinous crime being committed is the staging of this show. Act II allows for more questioning and each night, a different suspect is chosen based on audience votes. My only question was, “When this will be over?” While it is bad form for critics to ever walk out of a performance, my adherence to convention was deeply challenged.
According to the show’s website, Shear Madness is based on a 1963 play called Scherenschnitt by German psychologist Paul Portner, who wrote the play “as a study of how people perceive or misperceive reality based on the actions of stereotypical characters.”
When Shear Madness premiered at Lake George Dinner Theater in 1978, cliché depictions of blonde women, donut-eating police officers, over the top flamboyant homosexuals, and snooty socialites may have been something new. In 2015, it is maddening and unconscionable.
At best, the humor is juvenile and rarely funny. The script changes often based on current events, so expect to hear jabs about Ben Carson, Donald Trump, the Clintons, Bill Cosby, and closeted homosexuals. Don’t expect anything clever, though. While marketing ensures us that these jokes are “fresh”, they are little more than recycled bits from late night talk shows without the punch.
Credit should be given to the hardworking cast, each of who handles the improvisational quality with ease. I am all in favor of employed actors, and appreciate that this talented cast is receiving a paycheck. I only wish they were working with material that didn’t pander to the audience.
Perhaps I am a lone voice in the theatrical wilderness. Many at the performance I saw were laughing out loud, proving the subjective nature of live theater. But as far as I’m concerned, let the perm record reflect my outright disdain: Shear Madness truly blows and this salon can’t close shop fast enough.
New World Stages
340 West 50th Street, NYC
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.