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The real mystery of ‘Shear Madness’: Who goes to see it — and why?

Danny Bernardy (left) is one of many actors who have played hairdresser and walking gay stereotype Tony, with Gil Brady’s undercover cop, in Shear Madness at the Kennedy Center. (Photo by Margot Schulman)

As the sun set behind the Kennedy Center terrace one recent Thursday night, cotton-candy clouds dotted a bright blue sky, the Potomac sparkled and Eric Springer, 29, dropped to one knee and asked Kimberly Hesler, 25, if she would marry him. “Yes, yes, of course,” Hesler said.

Hesler, who met Springer while the two worked at Georgetown University Hospital, thought they were just going to see “Shear Madness.”

“It was a total surprise,” she gushed afterward while sipping celebratory champagne.

“‘Shear Madness’? Why?” I asked Springer.

I didn’t want to ruin the moment I had stumbled upon, but I was surprised. Why would a pair of hip, young D.C. locals see a show that’s widely considered the theatrical equivalent of a tourist trap? Plus, a slapstick whodunit isn’t the most romantic option for post-engagement entertainment.

“I kinda just looked at what was playing around this time,” Springer said.

Apparently, he hadn’t read the reviews. Back when “Shear Madness” debuted in 1987, The Washington Post proclaimed it “sheer torture.” “Sheer idiocy,” added Washington City Paper a few days later. The critical assessment has remained dismal, but that hasn’t stopped some 3.3 million people from seeing the Kennedy Center’s production since its debut.

The play asks audiences to help figure out who killed the landlady of a hair salon, but I was there to solve a different mystery: If “Shear Madness” is so terrible, why do people keep seeing it in droves?

As I entered the bowl-shaped theater, I found my first clue: 60 or so eighth-graders wearing crisp white shirts and canary yellow lanyards. On the fringes of the teens were a few tired looking adults. “We’ve been going since 6 a.m.,” one of them told me. Why “Shear Madness?” “I’m just happy to be sitting down,” he said.

Behind this school group from Chicago were about 40 teens from Chile. Also in attendance: about 20 people in clusters of two or three, including a middle-aged couple from Cleveland Park who had brought their 20-something niece to the show.

When we entered the theater, the actors were already onstage and in character. Hairdresser and gay stereotype Tony (Neil Casey) flounced around while fellow hairstylist Barbara (Soneka Anderson, dressed like a 1950s pinup girl for reasons left unexplained) painted her nails. They were soon joined by a few customers, including a rich socialite (Cornelia Hart), a shady antiques dealer (Aaron Shields) and an undercover cop (Joe Mallon).

“Shear Madness” is supposedly set in a modern-day Georgetown salon, but it’s hard to imagine how Tony makes his rent giving cheap shaves. He could charge more if he updated his decor — no self-respecting Georgetown blonde would let her split ends fall on that pink and blue linoleum floor.

Like Tony’s salon, “Shear Madness” may be overdue for a makeover. Otherwise, it could be in danger of losing its spot to sleeker, more modern comedies like “The Second City’s Almost Accurate Guide to America.” The Kennedy Center subbed in the Second City production for “Shear Madness” this summer, and the show sold more tickets and garnered positive reviews.

But “Shear Madness” is back for now, and I found its plot very difficult to follow. For the first half of the show, the five main characters try with various degrees of success to give and get shaves and haircuts while conveying a convoluted backstory. It doesn’t help that they all are given to malapropisms and crack wise with little narrative provocation. “If I wanted to live dangerously, I’d wear a sombrero to a Trump rally,” Tony said after encountering misplaced shears. The eighth-graders found this screamingly funny, and their unbridled joy buoyed many otherwise groan-worthy gags.

By intermission, only this was clear: The landlady had been murdered offstage, one of the characters was responsible, and the formerly undercover detective needed our help to figure it all out.

When we reconvened, the cop had the suspects re-enact everything that had happened, and asked us, the audience, to point out anything suspicious. The teens jumped into the task with gusto. “Why’d you throw away your scissors?” one of the Chilean kids shouted at Barbara. “Because they were broken,” she said, fishing them out of the garbage to prove her point. “Satisfied now, crime-stopper?” she said, prompting a big laugh.

As we questioned the characters, a cloud of facts emerged, many of which seemed conflicting, or at least unlikely. In what world would fetching 20-something Barbara date the comb-over-afflicted antiques salesman or the elderly landlady (a relationship referred to as “Lebanese”). We were supposed to believe she was dating both of them at the same time.

Finally, the cop called for a vote. Who did we, the audience, think was guilty? A show of hands implicated the antiques salesman, who immediately confessed. The teens applauded their own cleverness, perhaps unaware that their vote determined which of several endings the actors would perform. In “Shear Madness,” whichever character the audience wants to be guilty always is.

This is just one of the ways “Shear Madness” unabashedly gives people exactly what they want. And, when faced with an audience of eighth-graders, Shields met this mandate with perfect comic intuition. As his antiques dealer was being booked, he asked if he could make a call.

“And who do you want to call?” the cop said.

“Deez Nuts,” Shields replied, getting the biggest laugh of the night.

Not everyone got the joke. “It’s an internet thing,” the Cleveland Park niece explained to her aunt and uncle. The three said they had a good time regardless. “We got most of the jokes,” the aunt said. The newly engaged couple agreed. “We really enjoyed the show,” Hesler said. “Although, to be fair, we were pretty elated going into it.”

More reviews from the Staycationer:

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