Sheer Fun and Sheer History at ‘Shear Madness’

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Shear Madness

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

Let’s go back in time. My wife, my small son and I were in Boston in the summer of 1984, looking for something to do. We read about the play Shear Madness, running at the Charles Playhouse there, and went to see it. It was uproarious. The play, a murder mystery that involves the audience, had already been running for four years.

After the show, I bumped into one of the producers and urged him to take it to New York. He said that was his goal and he hoped to be in New York within the year. You must remember that in 1984 this play was already 21 years old. It had been written by a German playwright, Paul Portner, and then re-written by Bruce Jordan and Marilyn Abrams and staged in 1978 in Lake George, New York.

So, last week, here we are, 31 years, a generation of two, later, or, if you back to the beginning, 52 years later, and Shear Madness has finally opened at the New World Stages, West 50th Street, in New York. It is, the producers claim, the longest-running play in the United States, yet it took all this time to hit New York, its original destination.

The reason? Thirty one years of success. The play had long runs in Chicago (still on the boards after 35 years), Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Philadelphia. It is still running in Boston. Now, at long last, it has finally reached New York

And thank goodness it is in New York, too!

The play has become, after 52 years, a piece of show business history itself. You want history? The play was first written when John F. Kennedy was President and before the Beatles were famous.

The play, that I caught again in New York last week, is absolutely hysterical, one of the funniest I have ever seen, today or in 1984.

The original producers, Jordan and Abrams, have continually re-written it to base its humor on current events. When I first saw it in Boston in 1984, it was based on 1970s events. Today it is so current they even have a barb about Dr. Ben Carson, Republican Presidential hopeful, and last week’s snafu with his alleged scholarship “admission” to West Point. They even zing Donald Trump and the Kardashians.

The plot of the 1960s play, never changed, is simple. A female concert pianist lives above a hair salon where the funky Tony Whitcomb, an over the top, fantastic character, works with Barbara DeMarco, the owner of the shortest skirts in America. They are talking to several customers when the woman is murdered and undercover police move in to solve the case.

The cops grill the talkative Whitcomb and DeMarco, along with customers Eddie Lawrence and Mrs. Shubert, who appear to be people of some mystery. Then, in act two, the spotlight is turned on the audience. The cops ask them what they have seen that they can tell police to help the investigation. Who dun it?

What follows is sheer fun. I never saw an audience chuckle so much as in this play. The kicker is that whomever the audience votes for in an “election” in the middle of the play becomes the prime suspect in the investigation. Each night, the suspect may be different and the conclusion of the play varies.

The beauty of the interaction between the cops on stage and the audience is the ad lib quips. The biggest laugh comes when the cop says that the audience seemed sure of something and Tony Whitcomb yells that, ‘these were the folks who were sure the Mets would win the World Series!”

Ouch! That hurt!

The audience gets completely caught up in the play. People on line to visit the bathroom get into conversations with the stage cops and offer all kinds of zany solutions to the play. The audience has a sharp memory, too, and constantly corrects suspects as they try to re-tell their stories to fool the police and concoct alibis.

Director Bruce Jordan has done a superb job of taking a 1963 murder mystery and a contemporary police interrogation and melding them into a very smooth and coherent piece of theater. He gets help from the gifted cast: Kate Middleton (not that Kate Middleton!) as Barbara DeMarco, Adam Gerber as cop Mike Thomas, Patrick Noonan as cop Nick O’Brien, Jordan Ahnquist as Tony Whitcomb, Lynne Wintersteller as Mrs. Shubert and Jeremy Kushnier as Eddie Lawrence. The hair salon set by Will Cotton, the same basic set I saw in 1984, right down to the wash basin for hair rinse, is sensational. The play is saturated with 1970s and 1980s music.

The killer? We’ll have to wait for Lieutenant Columbo on that.

You need a laugh in these dreary times? See this play.

PRODUCTION; The play is produced by Manny Kladitis, Terry Schnuck, Jeffrey Chrzczon, Kathleen K. Johnson, others. Sets: Will Cotton, Costumes: Rodney Harper, Sound: Bruce Landon Yauger. The play is directed by Bruce Jordan. It has an open run.  

comments powered by Disqus