When Peter Sellers arrived at the Kennedy Center a little over two years ago to head the ill-fated American National Theatre, he announced that his mission was to prove that this great marble mausoleum on the Potomac didn’t have to be a place where audiences “dress up and prepare to be somber.” God, if he could see it now.
Somber is the last thing you’d call what the Center has been parading for us this summer. Take, for instance, Satchmo or Sherlock’s Last Case. They’re garbage certainly, but animated, glitzy, anxious-to-please garbage. They bend over backwards to be light and frothy and undemanding, as if by sheer expenditure of effort, they could make the Center’s marble hallways as cozy for tourists and suburbanites as their local dinner theaters. As plays, they’re not any good, but they’re not intimidating.
You may have heard that Shear Madness, the latest arrival at our national temple for the arts, belongs in the same category, but I think not. Oh, it's trash all right—no one can take that from it—but in a series of long-run engagements in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia it has established that trashiness can be a point of style, and while that doesn’t all together excuse the evening’s excesses, it does make flogging them an exercise in irrelevance. A case could probably be made that I’m being a derelict in my critical duties here—somebody should, I suppose, be chasing the Philistines from the temple—but, frankly, I’m not in the mood.
Adapted from a murder-mystery by Swiss playwright Paul Pörtner, the evening begins at the roof level Theater Lab as a fairly conventional farce, and ends as an audience-participation whodunit in which we’re encouraged to question the witnesses and essentially to write our own ending by voting for a guilty party. In practice, there are four basic endings (one for each suspect), but how the performers get there each night depends on the questions asked.
The show is set in Georgetown (the producers adapt the script to each host city) at the Shear Madness Unisex Hair Styling Salon, where owner Tony, played by director Bruce Jordan as a walking faggot joke, and his gum-chewing, blond-with-blue-streaks assistant (Robin Baxter) are trying to make themselves heard over the din of piano music emanating from an upstairs apartment. The pianist is Tony’s elderly landlady, with whom he has a running feud (“she’s a day older than dirt…I think she was a waitress at the Last Supper”) but a half-hour of preliminaries establishes that everyone on the premises—a society matron and an antiques dealer who’ve wondered in as customers and the assistant—has an equally valid motive for doing away with her. When the old crone is found murdered with a pair of haircutting scissors, the cops arrive, and it’s our turn. The events are re-enacted, with a member of D.C.’s finest (Matt Callahan) instructing us to tell him if any of the suspects changes things the second time around. Naturally they do, and as they say in the movie biz, hijinks ensue. After intermission, we’re allowed some direct interrogation with forces a bit of improvisation from the actors, though it also gives them an easy out: If the second half isn’t as funny—and it certainly isn’t—it looks like it’s our fault for asking the wrong questions.
Calling this a play would be shameless flattery—it’s an extended vaudeville routine with a novelty twist—but it is funny. Not clever or witty, mind you—funny the way the Three Stooges are funny. Next to Shear Madness, a farce like Noises Off is Macbeth…hell, next to Shear Madness, even Satchmo looks like Macbeth.
On the other hand, if you’re in the mood for froth, there’s shaving foam galore, and sudsy hair, and jokes so hoary (“What’s that music?” “Rachmaninoff.” “Gesundheit.”) they might have been part of the flotsam when Noah was still learning to sail. It’s not theater exactly, but as empty-headed entertainment, it’s not appreciably less stimulating than Cats or a visit to the bowling alley.
The performances are suitably broad, with Robin Baxter chewing her lines into sweet submission almost as ferociously as she does her chewing gum, and Jordan and Callahan camping to a fare-thee-well. The local references are pretty routine, but the audience appears to love them—when the detective says he’s from Hyattsville, it’s good for guffaws; a reference to a character’s criminal record (“forging phony tickets to the carousel at Glen Echo”) rates a roar of laughter. This is not sophisticated stuff, but it was good enough for burlesque, and that’s something you can’t always say about the drivel that plays downstairs in the Eisenhower.
Admittedly, Shear Madness would sit better if the Kennedy Center were also playing something a little more substantial, and nicer still if this weren’t the only attraction ever to be booked there for an open-ended run. The producers are hoping it will settle in for a year or two, which probably isn’t in the best interests of a national arts institution.
But I can’t say that I’m any more offended by this being at the Center than I was by last season’s Raisin in the Sun being played there as if it were a TV sitcom. I will concede that turning the Kennedy Center into a booking house for purely commercial attractions isn’t ideal, but let’s not happily pretend it’s happened abruptly. From its inception, the Center has been engaged in a balancing act between art and commerce. And with ballet, opera, and symphonies all lined up on the artistic side, that has left theater to take up more than its fair share of the commercial slack with star-laden Broadway touring companies and Center-produced, star-laden revivals. Sometimes a little art gets mixed in with the commerce, as in Dustin Hoffman’s visit with Death of a Salesman, but for the most part, we haven’t been going to the Kennedy Center to see theater so much as to see stars, from the beginning.
With Kennedy Center Chairman Roger Stevens being replaced later this year by a man who has suggested in interviews that what he’d really like to see at the Eisenhower is standup comedian Jackie Mason, there is cause for alarm, but lately D.C.’s small theaters have been standing taller. If the Center neglects the city’s theatrical sophisticates, there are now other places for them to go.