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What You Should Know About Shear Madness, the Kennedy Center’s Longest-Running (and Possibly Most-Hated) Show

The play is closing (temporarily) on June 12.
It's curtains (temporarily) for Washington's corniest play. Photograph of Shear Madness by Margot Schulman.

For the first time in almost three decades, Shear Madness, the Kennedy Center’s longest-running—and arguably most hated—production, goes on hiatus June 12 after more than 12,000 performances. The show returns at the end of August, but even a mere summer without Shear Madness is worth celebrating. For years, critics have bemoaned the corny, pop-culture-reference-heavy comedy’s takeover of the KenCen’s Theater Lab space. In its place will be Second City’s Almost Accurate Guide to America, starting June 19. Before the temporary break, here’s Washingtonian’s explainer on how the critically unacclaimed Shear Madness has hung on so long.

Where did Shear Madness come from?

The creators, Bruce Jordan and Marilyn Abrams, were working at a dinner theater in Lake George, New York, in 1978 when they adapted a script by a German psychologist that used audience in-put to help solve a murder mystery in a hair salon. The original wasn’t a comedy, but Jordan and Abrams loaded their play with local references, gay stereotypes, and enough physical gags to keep upstate New York vacationers chuckling through their meals. The show caught on, and by 1980 they launched a version in Boston. Chicago and Philadelphia followed, and in August 1987, the Kennedy Center debuted a Washington take. It has been playing ever since.

What is the show about?

A landlady who lives above a hair salon—in Georgetown, for the Kennedy Center version—is murdered. The other characters try to unmask the killer with the help of the audience and a script littered with more strained pop allusions (Kardashians, presidential candidates, and so forth) than a Jay Leno monologue. Unsurprisingly, the play isn’t exactly a favorite with theater critics. When it opened, the Washington Post called it “as appropriate as a pie-eating contest on the White House lawn, and somewhat less amusing.”

If it’s so bad, how come it has never closed?

Because it sells, especially to tourist groups. Despite the Washington Post’s burn, Arch Campbell called it “the most fun I’ve ever had at the Kennedy Center,” a blurb that the show has been trading on for decades. Shear Madness has been a reliable revenue stream for the Kennedy Center, which reports making more than $500,000 a year off of it.

So should I see it before the hiatus?

That’s up to you—Shear Madness hasn’t gotten better with age. But if you don’t want to wait until August, renditions are still going strong in Boston and in New York, where it finally opened last year.

This article appears in our June 2016 issue of Washingtonian.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.