Shear Madness

It’s apparently one of the longest-running plays in the world. Frankly, I don’t see why.

The premise is simple:  Tony and Barbara run a hair salon in fashionable northwest Washington, in a building owned by the retired piano player Isabel Churney, who left the concert music business after a nervous breakdown on stage.  Tony is a fabulously gay man with a penchant for the theatrical, and Barbara is a gum-chewing late-80s hottie.

In the course of the opening scenes, Tony nearly ruins one man’s haircut, and completely fails to give another guy, an apparent construction worker,  the shave he asked for, while two other characters — a businessman and an heiress — come in for various reasons and engage in various chicaneries.

It emerges that two of the men are police officers assigned to stake out the building, because someone is threatening Mrs. Churney (who never appears) with blackmail, and now she’s been murdered.  The detective brings the lights up in the house, and involves the audience in solving the crime, to the horror and bemusement of the actors on stage, who pretend that they didn’t really know there was an audience until the lights come up.

Done well, this can be an effective play.  Done repeatedly for school groups, as the Washington DC production seems designed for, to keep hoi polloi out of (say) the Opera House… well.  It seems to have lost much of its magic.

And I admit, this is the seventh or eighth time I’ve seen this production. The stage business is much the same all the way through, and I admit that I’ve started getting deeply confused about what they did last year and what’s new this year.  Given that yesterday morning saw the signing of the health care reform act, and that the relations between the political parties were so strained, I’m surprised there weren’t more good jokes, and new jokes.  But the lines about Miley Cyrus and Paris Hilton were tired, and tiring.

Meanwhile, the Washington National Opera’s new production of Porgy and Bess was playing downstairs — a marvel, they say, of the Gershwins’ thoroughly American opera.  I’m thinking, next year we won’t be seeing Shear Madness. We’ll try to do some other cultural event at the Kennedy Center, and stay out of the murderous hair salon.

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