In Boston — where “Shear Madness” is the longest running play in American history — Mrs. Shubert lives in Beacon Hill. Here in Washington, D.C., she lives in John and Teresa Heinz Kerry’s other neighborhood, Georgetown.
Asked what does her husband do, the ritzy lady in red draws herself up and responds: “He’s a diplomat. He doesn’t do anything.”
Mrs. Shubert is a comic stereotype, and so are her five fellow characters: gay salon owner Tony, sexy manicurist Barbara, streetwise detective Nick, green-behind-the-ears cop Mike and shady antiques dealer Eddie.
Set in Georgetown, complete with parking issues, performances open with “the warm-up” — bits of stage business in the bright blue and hot pink salon, choreographed to an upbeat soundtrack of hint-hint tunes: “Material Girl” for Barbara and “Y.M.C.A.” for Tony.
If this sounds more like a sketch from an ’80s sitcom than a play, well, maybe we could all use an ’80s sitcom from time to time. But with “Shear Madness,” the audience is part of the show, both as laugh track and peanut gallery.
After 30 years, you probably know the drill. The salon’s landlady, concert pianist Isabel Czerny, who lives upstairs, is a victim of murder by scissors. At first undercover as customers, the two D.C. police officers take the situation in hand. Detective Nick has the lights turned up so the audience members — to the other characters’ supposed shock — can help solve the crime, then vote for the killer of their choice: Tony, Barbara or Eddie (Mrs. Shubert has an alibi). The show wraps up with a melodramatic confession scene by whichever of the three “won” the raise-your-hands poll.
“Shear Madness” is so popular with school groups that there are two spring casts. I saw the second company, which performs at 8 p.m. Mondays and at 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Both newcomer Torin Lusebrink, as Tony, and returning veteran Helen Hedman, as Mrs. Shubert, were standouts.
Creators Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan — the original Barbara and Tony — adapted “Shear Madness” from a relatively serious German murder mystery, “Scherenshnitt” (“Scissor Cut”) by Paul Pörtner, for a Lake George, New York, summer theater in 1978. It opened at Boston’s Charles Theater in 1980 and began what was supposed to be a 12-week run at the Kennedy Center seven years later.
Well over 100 actors have appeared in the Washington production, which, an Equity show, is one of the few steady acting gigs in town. The shortest contract, a sort of probationary period, is for three weeks of rehearsal and three weeks of performance.
“It’s a deceptive play,” says associate director Bob Lohrmann, who’s in charge of D.C. casting and direction. “People think it’s easy to do and it’s not.”
“I hire actors,” he says, meaning he looks for acting chops rather than comedic or improv talent. To some extent, the show is a well-oiled machine (you might even say “mousetrap,” the name of the world’s longest running play, by Agatha Christie, in London’s West End).
The stereotypes, gags and shaving-cream slapstick have a seemingly universal appeal. “Shear Madness” is currently playing in Paris (as “Dernier Coup de Ciseaux”) and has been a hit in several other countries. Not understanding a word, Lohrmann saw a performance in Croatia at which the audience reacted exactly the way he was used to. “It was like I was in a science-fiction movie,” he says.
The other key element is the freshness that comes from the insertion of topical and local zingers, the cast’s reactions to audience input and a sprinkling of miscellaneous improvisation.
When he first helped launch a production in Canada, Lohrmann said the locals told him that Canadians would never participate as actively as U.S. audiences (not true). To prepare directors of new productions, he typically has them watch a performance with a boisterous audience, then debriefs them.
New hires learn what works based on decades of experience, but part of their task is to brainstorm material. Though there’s plenty of topicality (referring to the Tide Pod challenge, for instance), the show is less locally oriented in D.C. than elsewhere since audiences are largely from out of town. There’s a WTOP radio update by Bob Madigan, Eddie saw Isabel’s classified ad for a chest of drawers in The Georgetowner and, when someone screamed, Tony said: “Honest to God, I thought she got ‘Hamilton’ tickets.”
But in the era of social media, according to Lohrmann, the churn rate for jokes has accelerated: “You’re lucky if [a joke] lasts till the end of the week.”
The D.C. production has its fans, but it is a show that critics and opinion leaders love to hate, for several reasons. It’s middlebrow at best, it’s been tying up the Theater Lab for three decades and its stereotypes are dated if not — especially in Tony’s case — objectionable.
Lohrmann, who has played Tony, sees the character as a stereotype (like the other characters), but not a negative one. For one thing, apart from his occasional election as the murderer, Tony is the wittiest and perhaps the smartest character, with a winning enthusiasm.
“Every actor puts their own imprint on the character,” says Lohrmann. Asked to compare his interpretation with Lusebrink’s, he says, “It’s like a Gibson guitar and a Stratocaster” playing the same song. But Tony is no more or less flamboyant or “out” than he ever was. What has changed, according to Lohrmann, is the audience. “The kids today don’t see the Tony character as ‘the other,’” he says. “The audience knows Tony better than they did before.”
It has long been rumored that the show’s days at the Kennedy Center are numbered. In recent years, “Shear Madness” has been bumped for summer and December appearances by Chicago’s Second City sketch-comedy troupe. The Kennedy Center recently announced a partnership with the Second City, kicking off this summer. If “Shear Madness” isn’t renewed, would the show relocate in D.C.?
Perhaps, but, says Lohrmann, “Where do you park all those buses?”