First Nighter: Beauty Salon Crime Comedy "Shear Madness" is, as Advertised, Sheer Madness

Shear Madness has just arrived in Manhattan for the first time after playing for decades(!) in Boston. Curiously, people who hear about it seem to expect not to like it, and, as I arrived, I was among them. How appealing does a seeming farce sound that's been fruitcaked with broad topical jokes--apparently updated daily--and takes place in a beauty salon?

Okay, it doesn't matter how it sounds, when as it plays at New World Stages on Will Cotton's evocative set, it turns out to be consistently entertaining. We're in the Shear Madness salon. Even before the action begins, one stylist at work is Tony Whitcomb (Jordan Ahnquist). He's a gay blade--or barber with blades, who isn't Sweeney Todd. The other is Barbara DeMarco (Kate Middleton, but not the English one). She's gussied up in leopard top and frayed denim miniskirt. (Rodney Harper is the costumer).

When things get going in the late Paul Portner's script (this is a translation from the German Scheren-schnitte)--and after sound designer Bruce Landon Yauger has floated in several 1960s hits--customers Eddie Lawrence (Jeremy Kushnier), Mrs. Schubert (Lynne Wintersteller) and Nick O'Brien (Patrick Noonan) drop in for attending to. During the prelude segment we've already seen Mike Thomas (Adam Gerber) having his scalp treated.

Tony (notice his surname includes the word "comb") is flaming about. (He later answers the phone with a gleeful "Shear Madness--we curl up and dye.") In part he's blabbing about the retired concert pianist who plays loudly in the apartment directly above the shop. Barbara is getting herself busy with Mrs. Shubert, whose hair is "a disaster." Eddie is waiting his turn, while Nick, who's been slathered with shaving cream, waits for Tony to stop gabbing and get down to razor business.

All activity shifts, when the upstairs keyboard tickler is discovered dead. She's been slashed in the neck, and "there's blood everywhere." At that point, Nick and Mike reveal they're cops who've been tipped off about an impending crime. They go on to say that the murderer has to be one of the four in the room--three of whom (Mrs. Schubert not among them)--have been in and out of the salon for short periods of time.

Indeed, the activity shifts so radically that when Nick declares that the comings-and-goings require reconstructing, he cracks open the fourth wall and informs the audience that as the replay unwinds, audience members are encouraged to shout out any discrepancies noticed. And don't you know, Nick doesn't have to do any arm-twisting to make patrons comply? Questions and corrections ring out, many of them riling the characters at moments when they're trying to hide previous questionable behavior. Comically fractious character/audience member encounters can and do ensue.

And that's only the first act. In the second act, Nick, who's been available for discussion to ticket buyers during the intermission, calls on audience members to ask questions of the suspects. This before he and Mike, who's been taking notes energetically, ask the audience to vote for the character they've become convinced is the guilty party. The vociferous crowd with which I sat--pretty much silently but for laughing regularly at the many surprises--picked Eddie as the culprit. He'd appeared earlier with a bloodied finger. And guess what! He turned out to be guilty as charged.

I only report as much, because officer Nick explains at the curtain call that at every performance, the figure the audience cites is the guilty party. So three endings--Mrs. Schubert has been eliminated for reasons not to be disclosed here--have been prepared, and there's no telling beforehand which will be played on any given night.

The set-up with audience participation is one explanation for the built-in Shear Madness fun. There are two other major factors. The gags, the puns, the references may often be shameless, but they can also be downright hilarious. One of my favorites, which came up when someone mentioned Mexico in connection to something said about a woman, went as follows, "We'll put her in a sombrero and send her to Donald Trump."

Nothing seems to miss the Shear Madness team, which has now placed the beauty parlor on the block New World Stages occupies. The establishment is decorated for Thanksgiving, and you can bet a Christmas tree will appear in two week's time. On the other hand, nothing in questionable taste is uttered--slightly un-p. c., yes, but not tasteless. Its unlikely barbed quips about the current Paris outrages will materialize.

Then there's the cast, directed by Bruce Jordan. First among equals is swishy Ahnquist, who's never at a loss for words either written for him or that he makes up on the spot. Kidding a ticket buyer he apparently caught snoozing, he says, "I didn't recognize you with your clothes on." Then he gives the well-known "call me" signal.

But every one of the troupe has his or her chance to get laughs--as well as to break up over them. At one point Ahnquist's Tony and Noonan's Nick shared a kiss that appeared to be improvised. Then they couldn't recover for several seconds. Maybe it occurs every performance, but it certainly seemed spur-of-the-moment.

That's how it goes with Shear Madness. As a friend I ran into during the interval said to me, "At first I was laughing at it, but now I'm laughing with it." You will be, too. You surely won't feel as if you've been clipped.