Bad Hair Play

There are more reasons not to see Shear Madness than there are alternate endings to the play. The device of this senseless shriek fest, which is now playing at Theater League's New Scottsdale Playhouse, is that it allows its audience to select one of four different wind-ups to its highly unfunny comedy-murder-mystery plot. But ultimately, whodunit is less interesting than that its creators have ground out a fortune from such meager trash.

Shear Madness is not just a lousy comedy with a gimmick. It's a lousy comedy with a gimmick that holds the record for the longest consecutive run in American theater history. The show's Boston production celebrates its 17th anniversary this month, having logged upward of 7,000 performances--more than twice as many as Life With Father, the previous champ, which ran for years on Broadway. Hot on the heels of this auspicious title is the play's Chicago production, which ranks second with 14 years' worth of performances. Since it debuted in 1980, Madness has played to four million people all over the world and grossed nearly $60 million.

The play runs in as many as nine cities at a time and courts audiences who don't usually attend theater. It attracts repeat business by promising audience members a different show each night and allowing them to vote not only on which clues to include, but on who the murderer is and, therefore, how the final scene gets played. After the curtain call, the actors beseech us not to "reveal the unusual format of the show." Huh?

Set in a garish hair salon, Shear Madness hauls six one-dimensional oddballs into a paper-thin plot about a concert pianist who's been murdered in an upstairs apartment while the principals await their perm appointments below.

The play relies on audience participation and a lot of flat topical humor (the script is heavily rewritten for each production, to reflect city-specific politics and in-jokes) and, luckily, minimal acting skill. The players in this production holler their lines at full volume, perhaps to overcome the crummy acoustics of the New Scottsdale Playhouse, or maybe so that the audience won't miss a single overdrawn clue or overbaked laugh line.

Anyone with memorization skills can play this twaddle, but the show's proposed four-month run has lured several Equity players, at least one of whom should have known better: Heidi Ewart, a talented dramatic actress and sometime musical-comedy player, is slumming in this crappy farce. Tony, the proprietor of the hair salon, is written and played as the worst sort of swishy, mincing, guy-ogling gay stereotype. He announces that he wants to play the lead in Hello, Dolly!, that he's slept with a married man in the audience, that he's ecstatic that his apron matches the wallpaper. The folks at Theater League say that Matt Callahan, who plays the effeminate hairdresser and is the director of the Scottsdale production, is openly gay. But doesn't that kind of make his portrayal even more foolish?

Shear Madness creators Bruce Jordan and Marilyn Abrams attribute the show's success to the notion that "the audience has fun." By the time I left the Theater League production, all I had was a headache. (You try sitting in a dark room with six people who are screaming at the top of their lungs and insulting a minority group for two and a half hours and see what happens.) I've decided not to write a final paragraph to this review; instead, I thought readers might like to provide me with one. Clues to how I feel about the production of Shear Madness can be found in the preceding text. Thank you for your assistance and please--whatever you do--don't reveal the unusual format of this column to your friends.

Theater League's production of Shear Madness continues through Sunday, April 6, at the New Scottsdale Playhouse, 7219 East Main.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela