Review: ‘Shear Madness,’ Where Getting a Haircut Is Murder

Only $30 for a woman’s haircut at a Manhattan salon? That’s what they charge at Shear Madness, a wacky little shop that’s just opened on West 50th Street, though it looks as if it had been there forever. The walls are baby blue, the floor is linoleum, and isn’t that a ficus tree in the corner, over near the exposed brick?

What year is this again?

You can’t necessarily tell from the banter of the puckish owner, Tony; his gum-chomping stylist, Barbara; or the customers who filter in and out. Sure, there’s a slightly crude Kardashian joke and a mention of Perez Hilton, which at least put us in the past decade or so. Then someone mixes up Cathy Rigby and Eleanor Rigby,and you have to wonder if time has stopped.

But the audience at “Shear Madness” on the night I saw it, at New World Stages, loved the Rigby joke, and that’s probably why it’s still in the show, an astonishingly durable interactive murder mystery that’s been running in Boston since Jimmy Carter was in the White House. Which may explain Will Cotton’s set design.

Directed by Bruce Jordan, who created this improv-heavy show with Marilyn Abrams, “Shear Madness” is a very well-oiled mousetrap — and if, as this country’s longest-running play, it’s still being outpaced by Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” a fixture of the West End in London since 1952, well, Dame Agatha had a head start.

Where “Shear Madness” has the advantage is in its inclusive spirit of fun. Adapted from a 1963 German play by Paul Pörtner, it asks each audience to solve the killing of the shop’s unseen landlady, the concert pianist Isabel Czerny. After her body is discovered, the play stops; spectators ask questions of the characters then vote; and the outcome changes accordingly.

The suspects: Tony (Jordan Ahnquist), who had a strained-to-furious relationship with Isabel; Barbara (Kate Middleton), who stood to benefit by her death; Mrs. Shubert (Lynne Wintersteller), a wealthy client of the salon; and Eddie (Jeremy Kushnier), a shady, well-dressed man secretly involved with Barbara.

More than one recent audience member sought to add the police detectives investigating the murder — Nick O’Brien (Patrick Noonan) and his sidekick, Mikey (Adam Gerber) — to the list. This was not allowed.

Some of the humor skates into uncomfortable-relic territory, like a “bags fly free” joke about an airline, a character’s way of calling Mrs. Shubert an old bag. (It gets a laugh? Yick.) Other gags, like one involving Ben Carson, are as fresh as the news cycle.

But this is genuinely all-ages entertainment, not a “family-friendly” show that will leave grown-ups stultified. There’s plenty of silliness for those in the grade school crowd, and lots of sly double entendres that will sail right over their heads.

The tone depends hugely on the performers, and here this production does very well, particularly with Mr. Noonan, who, as the lead investigator, is impressively skilled at crowd control, and Mr. Ahnquist, whose Tony is an unapologetic sprite.

With big blue eyes and a mischievous manner, Mr. Ahnquist is not above trying to make his fellow actors crack up, which they did more than once. “It’s like a Carol Burnett sketch,” the guy behind me said, helpless with laughter.

Audiences love that sort of thing, and “Shear Madness” is all about pleasing them.

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