`Shear Madness': a whodunit that allows you to say who did it

Shear Madness is the name of a unisex hair salon where a blow-dry murder takes place, and also the name of the farce/thriller packing in audiences at Kennedy Center's Theater Lab. The show, which is in its eighth year in Boston, is also playing in Chicago, Montreal, and Barcelona, Spain. It ran for five years in Philadelphia, but has not snipped into Broadway yet. On Nov. 16 the Boston production will become the longest-running nonmusical in the history of the American theater, outdoing even ``Life With Father.''

Imagine a campy cross betweeen ``La Cage aux Folles'' and an Agatha Christie mystery and you have some sense of the ambiance of ``Shear Madness,'' as well as its unisex humor. The audience is seated in semi-cabaret style around the set of the Shear Madness Salon, where the walls are done in a blatant chrome yellow, with pink-and-green print wallpaper, and everything, including the yellow dentist's chair and custom-tailored aprons, matches. When a hapless customer wanders in, he is given the most cruel shampoo in the history of cosmetology, as though his head were being run through a tiny car wash. A customer requesting a shave is literally taking his life into his hands as the shop's owner, Tony Whitcomb, approaches the task with the zest of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber.

This is the sort of salon where the owner, on sighting the disastrous state of a customer's hair, shrieks, ``Mrs. Shubert, you should have come down in an ambulance!'' Mrs. Shubert, a wealthy Georgetown socialite, chatters on about ``the famous Shubert diamond - it has the Shubert curse.'' When asked ``What's the Shubert curse?'' she says, deadpan, ``Mr. Shubert.'' And we are off on a series of plot twists that obscure the basic question: Who murdered the building's landlady, a once-celebrated concert pianist, with a pair of haircutting shears. And why?

I can tell you the answer for the performance we saw, because this is participatory theater, quite democratic, and the audience gets to grill the suspects as well as vote on who they think the real murderer is. Then the troupe plays out a scenario in which that character is the criminal. Our favorite, hands down, was antiques dealer Edward Lawrence, who was trying to blackmail the pianist. But, depending on the audience, it could have been shop owner's assistant Barbara de Marco, a brassy blonde with blue roots, or Mrs. Shubert, who was involved in an afternoon dalliance, or the salon's owner, who spoofs the stereotype of the epicene hairdresser.

This is definitely not a family show. Some of the humor is too risqu'e for kids, and a little of it is too raunchy even for most adults.

``Shear Madness'' is the creation of two New York actors, Bruce Jordan and Marilyn Abrams, who apparently saw the potential in Swiss playwright Paul Portner's clever script in 1978. They bought the international stage, film, and television rights from him, and have jointly marketed the productions since then, varying each one with local names and jokes in the various cities they play in.

Mr. Jordan directed and designed this production, and plays the role of Whitcomb, the salon proprietor. Marilyn Abrams, who originated the part of Barbara de Marco, plays an amusing Mrs. Shubert in this production.

Under Jordan's pell-mell direction the cast gives an energetic, funny performance: Robin Baxter as the brash and conniving Barbara de Marco; Matt Callahan as the undercover cop, Tim O'Brien; Steve O'Connor as his assistant; and Michael Gabel as the suave blackmailer, Edward Lawrence. Jordan is the funniest of them all as the ``Shear Madness'' proprietor, who spritzes laughs like foam mousse all over the salon.

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