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Shear Madness

Patrick Noonan, Jordan Ahnquist                    photos by Carol Rosegg

                                   by Judd Hollander


Genre-bending hilarity is assured at Shear Madness at Off-Broadway's New World Stages. Based on the 1963 German play Scherenschnitt by Paul Pörtner, the show is making its very long-awaited New York debut. The play  opened in Boston in 1980 - where it continues to this day, as well as performed in Washington, DC since 1987. Shear Madness has also been translated into 23 foreign languages for 105 productions worldwide.


The action takes place at the Shear Madness Salon. Located, for this incarnation anyway, on 50th Street and 9th Avenue - pretty close to the location of New World Stages, as it turns out. Where a men's cut goes for $48.00, a buzz cut costs $25.00, partial highlights are $80.00 and a perm will set you back $140.00.


The business is run by the flamboyant hairstylist Tony Whitcomb (Jordan Anhquist), who lives in an apartment upstairs with his two cats. Also on staff is gum-chewing, wisecracking hairdresser/manicurist Barbara DeMarco (Jennifer Ellis). Barbara and Tony having are having a strong working relationship and are also quite protective of one other. As Tony puts it "We're like twins. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Double D".


After an engaging pre-show sequence, in which Tony reduces the audience to tears of laughter, while reducing some of the salon customers to either tears of pain or causing them to flee in terror, things slip into farcical mode. Doors are slamming, people are running in and out, and the audience is trying to keep up with what's going on. However when the dust has settled, it turns out that the unseen Isabel Czerny, the landlady of the building which houses the salon, has been murdered in her upstairs apartment. Stabbed to death by a pair of barber shears.


Once the toast of the classical music world, Isabel has long retreated from it. The abrupt end to her career is recounted by Tony in hilarious detail. Tony has also had an adversarial relationship with Isabel of late, while Barbara's relationship to her was somewhat closer.


Jordan Ahnquist (standing) and Adam Gerbler


It's up to NYPD Police Detective Nick O'Brien (Patrick Noonan) and his partner Police Lieutenant Mike Thomas (Adam Gerber) to figure out who indeed has dunnit. They've rounded up the various suspects, and are having them reenact what happened from the time each first entered the salon until the time Isabel was kicked off this mortal coil. In addition to Tony and Barbara, the suspects include antiques dealer Eddie Lawrence (Jeremy Kushnier), who may have been having some business dealings with Isabel; and New York socialite Mrs. Shubert (Lynne Wintersteller), who is possibility a petty thief or closet kleptomaniac. The reconstruction of what went down proceeded with more than a little help from the audience. This provided a good illustration of the concept of selective memory, and also why eyewitness accounts of a given situation are not always reliable.


What makes the show so much fun are the continual twists and turns presented – many more in addition to what's mentioned here - plus more than a little audience participation. The process enabling those in attendance to not only discern the guilty party, but also learn when they actually had the chance to commit the crime.


Patrick Noonan, Jordan Ahnquist                   


The entire cast is quite well versed at shifting the direction of the story or process new information at the drop of a hat, an important quality, particularly since the actors never know what sort of questions will be coming from the audience. The cops are able to deflect some of the more far-fetched theories that are brought up. At least one actor came perilously close to breaking up several times, as did the rest of the cast who were clearly enjoying said actor's struggle to maintain a semblance of composure.


Topical jokes abound ranging from Bill and Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump and Chipotle. And some word twisting that would make Mrs. Malaprop herself proud. The numerous New York references worked into the text keep Shear Madness productions from becoming dated over time.


Anhquist is a shear delight at Tony, who gleefully channels some of the most comedic gay stereotypes in recent memory – the things he does when washing a customer's hair or utilizing a can of shaving cream are priceless. He’s also always ready with quiet quip or fast answer when facing an interrogation, and not above lying when circumstances warrant. Ellis is fine as the more levelheaded Barbara. The character possessed of a clear streetwise attitude - channeling Fran Drescher at points - and who takes no guff from anyone. Gerber and Noonan work well as the cops, O'Brien coming off as the more seasoned sort, continually referring to his notebook and serving as unofficial guide for the audience; while Gerber is the more eager, gung-ho type. Kushnier nicely embodies the ongoing mystery that is Eddie - the one character that is deliberately hard to read and who could be anyone from a killer to a sleazy sort simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Wintersteller is great fun as Mrs. Shubert, the actress clearly having a ball milking every drop of humor from the spoiled and unhappy member of the city's upper crust - and just what is Mrs. Shubert's relationship with her husband anyway?


Bruce Jordan directs the production with a sure hand, he having been involved with Shear Madness from the very beginning. Knowing from long experience how to best meld the different styles required for comedy, farce and interactive mystery. All the while keeping the audience nicely off-balance. At least until they're forced to recall what they saw or thought they might have seen. Also working well is Will Cotton's set of the Shear Madness Salon, complete with various doors, copies of the New York Post, a closet that figures importantly in the plot, as well as hot towels and various shaving accoutrements.


After seeing Shear Madness, it's quite easy to see why it's been running for so long out of town. Whether this enjoyable show will be around for a couple of decades in New York City is unknown, but it's certainly off to a rip-roaring start.


Shear Madness

New World Stages/Stage 4

340 West 50th Street

Tickets: 212-239-6200 or

Ticket Prices: $49.50 - $79.50

Running Time, two hours, one intermission

Open-ended run