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Sheer Badness 

Interactive whodunit is sheer agony

What shall it profit a playhouse if it gains a hit and loses its soul? The Alliance Theater strikes a Faustian bargain by bringing Shear Madness to the Hertz Stage.

No one can dispute Shear Madness' status as a national theatrical phenomenon. The Guinness Book of World Records cites the 26-year production at Boston's Charles Playhouse as the longest-running nonmusical play in American history. Major Production Inc. stages Shear Madness at cities across the country, where it frequently settles in like a favored fast-food franchise. The Hertz Stage production includes such Shear veterans as director Bruce Jordan and actors George Contini, Jim Korinke and Barbara Bradshaw, in addition to Atlanta talent.

The evening begins with a peppy, dialogue-free sequence of pre-show slapstick as the characters gather at Buckhead hair salon Shear Madness. Oldies like "Help Me Rhonda" accompany the lightly choreographed action: Hairdresser Tony (Contini), for instance, lathers up a client to the music. But after a while, you want them to talk.

Once they do, you long for them to stop talking again. Bad jokes and heavy exposition introduce queeny Tony and his feud with his upstairs neighbor, famed concert pianist Isabel Czerny (who is later found dead with a pair of Tony's scissors in her neck). None of the characters prove quite what they seem, including Tony's brassy hairstylist, Barbara Jean Devereaux (Katie Kneeland), Buckhead matron Mrs. Shubert (Barbara Bradshaw), an oily antiques dealer (Maurice Ralston) and two hapless customers (Jack Dillon and Shear vet Korinke).

Shear's creators alter Paul Portner's script to fit each town that it plays, hitting the local references so hard, it feels like a book of just-finished Mad Libs: "I love it when the DOGWOODS are in bloom." "That's what they called me at AGNES SCOTT." Insults prove aggressively unfunny - Mrs. Shubert gets called "Mrs. Sheep-Dip" - and the one-liners drop constant, pointless references to pop catchphrases from "Go ahead, make my day" to "Can you hear me now?" Oh, I can hear you, all right.

It's difficult to appreciate actors working with such awful material, but some talent shines through. Contini, his eyes bouncing like Pepe Le Pew, has such a lively, inventive presence that I'd eagerly see him play something other than a walking cliché. Ralston gamely tries to underplay his role's soap-opera villainy. Korinke mugs shamelessly, but he brings a kind of corny, pre-ironic sincerity to his role reminiscent of "The Carol Burnett Show." (Like that variety show, the actors try to crack each other up when possible.)

Without giving too much away, Shear Madness evolves into an interactive murder investigation in which the audience gets to point out clues, question the characters and vote on whodunit. To give the show its due, this interactivity can be an engaging hook. The audience clearly loves catching the characters in lies and pointing out their bad behavior, like Mrs. Shubert's attempt to shoplift. Imagine a grown-up version of the kind of spontaneous energy you find in a puppet show when kids, say, warn Little Red Riding Hood about the Big Bad Wolf.

Any show that connects so directly to its spectators can't be all bad. Shear Madness may have the virtues of a successful parlor game, but it still has the flaws of a terrible stage play, particularly its cartoonish characters and lousy sense of humor.

Shear Madness will be popular - the Alliance has already extended its run. But if a show's humanity only comes from its audience, does it even qualify as theater? Will the wave of the future be improvisational gimmicks, exhausted stereotypes and flushing toilets as punch lines? Maybe Isabel Czerny was the lucky one.

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