One of the great things about the East End of Long Island is its proximity to the off-Broadway theater scene. Last Sunday afternoon seemed the perfect time to drive to the underground theater complex, on West 50th Street, and Shear Madness proved to be the perfect all-ages show. Of course the outing began with an outdoor lunch in the plaza just behind the theater.
Rightfully billed as “America’s longest-running comedy,” Shear Madness is now playing in New York for the first time. The whodunit was born in Lake George, NY, in 1978. Its creators, actors Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan, intended it to be a summer one-off. But it grew and went on to wow audiences in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Kuala Lumpur, Istanbul, Paris and Seoul. Crazy.
Yes, much of the humor is ribald—just like Broadway—but the dirty bits tend to go right over little heads—like Looney Tunes. Emphasis on “Looney.” New lines are improvised in every performance.
Fourth wall? What fourth wall? Shear Madness is participatory theater. When the audience enters, a pre-show is already underway. Two New York hair salon workers are lackadaisically servicing clients and chatting. With its stadium seating, the theater has the atmosphere of a studio-taped cooking show—but the air smells of shampoo instead of frying onions.
At certain points in the play audience members are called upon to participate in the action. They are quizzed, cajoled and—at least in one instance—invited onstage to place a key phone call. The cast wants to hear from everyone—from the old woman who’s scandalized by everything that they do to the sister who frequently reiterates “That just ain’t right!” to the tiny boy who thinks it’s his job to recount the cast’s every move in a breathless Winnie the Pooh voice. The show is richer for their contributions.
Then the lights turn to the stage and the mystery is solved by the professionals. Sort of.
The plot is that of a zany, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure murder mystery. Described as “Clue come to life,” it certainly resembles that, but its longevity—one or another variation of this show has been playing nonstop for almost 40 years!—can only be explained by its unique approach. This show takes six seasoned actors, the premise of a murder mystery and rolls it up with all manner of contemporary references and newsy tidbits. It’s a wild ride. Expect to hear comments on Hillary and Bernie and The Donald, of course. T. Swift will likely get a mention, along with Beyoncé. Don’t be surprised to see a copy of Dan’s Papers onstage—it only makes sense for the socialite character Mrs. Shubert to use it to plan her upcoming weekend in East Hampton.
I can envision seeing Shear Madness with a bunch of fellow bridesmaids and, at a later date, taking a group of clients to check it out. There’s a button for “Group Sales” on the show’s website.
Shear Madness is an American classic in an odd way. Back when it started there must have been references to Jimmy Carter, Rhodesia and the Pope; in later years it would have commented on another Clinton, possibly mentioned that sleazy businessman Donald Trump and no doubt referenced Monica Lewinsky. The more things change…
Of course our party dined at a local place after the show—Yum Yum Bangkok—and it was true to its name. Then back to our happy Hamptons home.