- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 1, 2001

To laugh when you're not supposed to so much as crack a smile can be exhilarating. I learned that years ago when a buddy made me giggle uncontrollably during geometry class with some inane gag. My teacher slapped me with detention, but it was worth it.
I had a similar sensation watching "Shear Madness," the oft-maligned whodunit that celebrated its 14th anniversary last month at the Kennedy Center.
The play, which first opened 21 years ago in Boston, is a rickety theatrical construct, a wheezing, gasping melange of silly sight gags and puckish puns. Its mystery motif unwinds easily enough so that even observant children can play a hand in the audience participation "Madness."
A former Washington Times critic labeled the play "a tourist trap," which lures unsuspecting visitors into its kitschy web. The critic in me expected to sniff at the proceedings, in order to carry my head high if the subject ever came up at a posh cocktail affair.
Foisting "Shear Madness" on the public via the Kennedy Center does make for a curious fit. But if the cheeky play can coax unseasoned theatergoers, particularly the younger set, into giving their local arts productions a gander, then it deserves its lengthy run.
My first time seeing "Shear Madness" found me seated among a mostly "TRL"-aged crowd. But instead of that MTV show's host, Carson Daly, the audience got the play's fey Tony Whitcomb (Thomas Ouellette), boisterous Barbara DeMarco (Margot Moreland) and inquisitive Detective Nick Rossetti (Aaron Shields).
The teen-age audience members, many of whom obviously weren't D.C. natives by their assortment of tongues, laughed and played along with the mystery as if their names were on the playbill.
A good part of me did, too.
For every laugh, though, and there were many, came an offsetting groan. "Madness" could use an editor to weed out the sillier moments. It's a dumb-downed mystery sold with enthusiasm and the occasionally inspired slapstick moment.
The framework of the mystery is as conspicuous as Calista Flockhart's spine in a backless Versace gown. So, too, are the pop cultural and local references applied liberally to the dialogue. The first mentions of Georgetown and Dupont Circle sound refreshing. But it quickly becomes apparent that the fix is in. The result feels as forced as a touring rock act mentioning the nearest highway to win over the crowd.
The up-to-the-minute gags — including swipes at Rep. Gary A. Condit, the embattled California Democrat, and recovering pop singer Mariah Carey — sound as if they were scribbled backstage minutes before show time.
Sure, it's unsettling to think that under this same roof the sublime "Mill on the Floss" once mesmerized audiences with its sophisticated wit and choreography. One look at "Shear Madness'" garish yellow set and ill-fitting costumes and the chasm between the two is baldly obvious.
Taking in "Madness" is like checking out the latest summer flick. Your sweet tooth aches from the workout.
But no one would argue that the production is art of any order.
I can say with little hesitation that my parents "done right" by me. But when it came to culture, Ma and Pa spectacularly dropped the ball.
"The Brady Bunch" took the place of great theater. We never went to Broadway shows, though we lived an hour's drive from the Great White Way. The past dozen years have seen me scrambling to catch up, sneaking in plays when feasible, gobbling up John Updike and Anne Tyler novels and watching those independent films that eschew chase scenes and happy endings. But it has been an effort, at times a teeth-gritting one.
If I had seen a play as accessibly goofy as "Shear Madness" as a teen, perhaps I would have sampled other shows and my cultural learning curve would not have been so steep.
"Shear Madness" could serve as a "gateway" show for impressionable teens or stubborn adults who refuse to part with their remotes.
A part of me wishes that, no matter how sophisticated my tastes may become, I never become completely immune to "Shear Madness'" outlandish charms.


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