Other plays have made more money (Cats, Phantom, et al.), earned more critical laurels (Death of a Salesman, Glengarry Glen Ross) and generated more buzz (Rent,anything featuring Nicole Kidman's bare ass). But Shear Madness has, at least, outlasted them all, with more than 37,000 performances around the world in almost 30 years, earning it the record for longest continually running theatrical presentation in Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
The question, on the occasion of its first Orange County presentation, courtesy of the Laguna Playhouse, is how it works. How can something this deliriously empty of literary and cultural significance rank as this country's biggest theatrical hit? And it's simple really: stupid sells. And really funny stupid sells really well.
Which doesn't mean you're stupid for seeing Shear Madness.It's a very funny blend of improv comedy and classic murder mystery. It's even quite clever in one vastly important respect: the audience participates in the murder investigation, making it difficult to not get caught up in the proceedings and nearly impossible to not be entertained.
But, every so often, it's hard to not feel that this is less a pearl thrown before well-clad swine than it is a particularly inoffensive-smelling pile of dung. It's a fast-paced, impeccably timed pageant of bad jokes (a frustrated musician with pianist envy), grotesque stereotypes (the flaming queen hairstylist, the bitterly vindictive Orange County matron), cheap malapropisms (lesbians are Lebanese), constant local references (from El Toro and Hoag Hospital to MacArthur Boulevard and the Boom Boom Room), updated topical references (a paralyzed cat named Hillary is urged by a gay man to run, Hillary, run!) and outrageously cheap situation comedy. You half expect Jack Tripper and Chrissy to bound onstage, eyes buggin' and boobs bouncin' at any moment.
Yet, even with all the screaming mediocrity, forced humor and shameless pandering, this is still an uproariously funny play, something that I'm confident anyone with a pulse would find funny.
Because it works, plain and simple. The cast members—several of whom have performed in hundreds of previous Shear Madnessproductions elsewhere—are game, energetic and downright masterful at getting the audience engaged and involved. That interaction, coupled with built-in ad-libs and character breaks, all but eliminates the imposing fourth wall that most theater hides behind.
The result is a play that feels as much staged by the audience as by the actors—and is therefore malleable enough to work anywhere. Even here.