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Trim all that shtick and a thinning plot remains

`Shear Madness,' styled as it is with groaner gags and scripted `improv,' still manages to tease its audience into action.

July 18, 2006|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

A dead body has been discovered in an apartment upstairs. In the hairstyling salon below, staff and clients are being held for questioning. The phone rings; the salon's proprietor answers. "Shear Madness," he says. "We curl up and dye for you."

Arrest that man, officer, before he kills again.

Not that it would do any good. There's no keeping this guy off the streets. He's the chief laugh-getter in the interactive murder mystery "Shear Madness," which has been playing for 26 years in Boston and for 19 in Washington, D.C. Numerous additional productions, including a short-lived one in Santa Monica in 1993, have preceded the one that just opened at Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach.

The plot is bland; the jokes are groaners. But theatergoers get hooked about two-thirds of the way through the first act, when an investigating officer breaks the fourth wall to invite their involvement. Soon, voices are calling out from all sides as audience members dispute the suspects' recollections -- and the suspects sass back.

First, though, the audience must sit through a typically zany workday at Shear Madness hairstyling salon.

The excitable, easily distracted proprietor, Tony Whitcomb (Joe Sampson), is supposed to be giving a shave but instead is delivering a commentary on musical theater. Unthinkingly, he has squirted a foamy Mt. Matterhorn of shaving cream into one hand, which he airdrops onto the customer's face before racing away to deliver a Carol Channing impersonation.

This flamboyantly gay sensibility -- some would call it stereotypical, though Tony proudly proclaims, "Honey, I'm retro" -- triggers many laughs and is meant to excuse the character's emotional meltdowns.

"What's wrong with that guy?" a new customer asks. "I don't know," Tony's assistant replies. "He's been like that ever since Star Jones got kicked off of 'The View.' " The script, purportedly written by a German named Paul Portner as an exercise in perception, was discovered and reworked by small-time theater pals, now big-time entrepreneurs Bruce Jordan and Marilyn Abrams. The 'View' reference, and others like it, indicate updates.

Chris Tarjan, a veteran of several "Shear Madness" productions, directed the one in Laguna. He also portrays a key character.

Others in the salon are played by Tacey Adams, Robin Long, Kevin Symons and Brett Ryback. To avoid spoiling any surprises, let's dispense with further description of their roles. But keep track of their activities. Please also note, as accessories to the crime, the slyly humorous designers Bruce Goodrich (set) and Julie Keen (costumes).

Word to the wise, though: Don't be fooled by the show's seemingly improvisational nature. That male-male kiss that seems so impetuous and cracks up both actors? It happened just that way 13 years ago, at the Santa Monica performances attended by this reviewer. In many ways, "Shear Madness" -- visibly thinning on top and receding from the forehead -- is even less than it seems.


'Shear Madness'

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Ends: Sept. 3

Price: $20 to $65

Contact: (949) 497-2787 or

Running time: 2 hours

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