Murder Most Merry

The arrival of Shear Madness in New York comes 36 years after the runaway hit opened in Boston. Since then, other editions have taken up residence in other cities, and inevitably the suspicion arises that the lengthy delay bodes a show that might not meet New York’s high standards. Happily, the lunatic confection at New World Stages indicates the opposite: all those years have helped create an indestructible engine for laughter that should keep its cast bankrolled for quite some time.

Based on a 1963 play by a German avant-garde playwright, Paul Pörtner, who was enamored of commedia dell’arte, Shear Madness is a whodunit that features audience participation, improvisation, and some timeworn jokes. The hoary gags are proof that everything old is new again: burnished and flung out by a terrific cast, they shine as brightly as if they were new-minted. New York hasn’t had such polished low comedy since James Corden starred in One Man, Two Guvnors.

The barbershop of the title, vividly designed by Will Cotton, is run by the campy stylist Tony Whitcomb (Jordan Ahnquist, blessed with wide-eyed innocence), who has a yen for show music and dancing and gossip, which easily distracts him from his job. Whether the charismatic Ahnquist has all the best lines or just makes it seem that way is irrelevant. You can hardly take your eyes off him because his reactions are as much fun as his quips. But the others are close behind.

The tonsorial space is rented from Isabel Czerny, a former concert pianist who lives upstairs and suddenly gave up her career years earlier. Although isolated, she isn’t a recluse. Tony’s female co-worker, the gum-chewing Barbara DeMarco (Kate Middleton), has befriended her, and Tony has been in her apartment too.

The play opens with a dumb show, set to music, that lasts several minutes and requires close observation. Tony is finishing up a customer (Adam Gerber). He spritzes his hair. A bearded man (Jeremy Kushnier) seems to know Barbara well and is perhaps having an affair with her. Barbara drops condoms into a wastebasket. The man with the beard, Eddie Lawrence, cedes his position as the next customer to a strapping guy, Nick O’Brien (Patrick Noonan), who wants a shave. Tony is elated; he hasn’t given a shave in years, and as he settles O’Brien into his chair, he makes small talk.

“Where are you from?” Tony asks.
Nick: “I’m from out of town.”
Tony: “Whereabouts?”
Nick: “Astoria.”

That kind of topicality runs through Shear Madness, along with sight gags and slapstick. The shop is located near Ninth Avenue on 50th Street—the actual address of New World Stages. Each edition is tailored to its city so this version has references, among other things, to the Mets (Gerber has a particularly funny bit about the World Series), the Gowanus Canal, Roosevelt Hospital and Gov. Chris Christie. There are jokes about broader current events as well: Bill Cosby and Brian Williams. There are sight gags and malapropisms—“I got ESPN,” says one character, and the socialite customer Mrs. Shubert (a haughty and suspicious Lynne Wintersteller) refers to “Andrew Dice Webber.”

At one point Mrs. Shubert rebukes Tony with “You were using cursive language,” and he responds, “I was not. They don’t even teach that anymore.” It’s worth noting that those lines aren’t in the script provided, so they are probably ad-libs. The cast is incredibly skilled with making stuff up.

Midway through the first half, it’s discovered that Czerny has been murdered, and the audience is invited to reconstruct the action. Director Bruce Jordan manages the tonal shift to audience participation deftly. As the suspects are questioned, they interact with their interrogators, managing the improvisation adeptly (though many of the questions will be ones they’ve heard before). Moderating the interrogation, Noonan has the trickiest job, and he handles it with authority and humor.

But since this is a murder mystery, it would spoil things to reveal too much more. Suffice it to say that Shear Madness is a hoot.

Shear Madness is at New World Stages (340 West 50th St. between 8th and 9th Aves.) in Manhattan for an open run. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. on Monday; 8 p.m. on Wednesday-Friday; and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets range from $49.50-$79.50. For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit Telecharge.com.

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