Can “The Mushroom Cure”
Help “Shear Madness”
It Could Happen!
“It could happen!!” And just what exactly does that infamous tagline, made famous by comedy comedienne Judy Tenuta, from the last eighties to the late nineties, in her appearances with Ellen de Generes, Barbara Walters, Joan Rivers, Rita Rudner, Howard Stern, George Carlin and others, have to do with the writer and performer Andy Strauss, appearing now at the Davenport Theatre, on west 45th Street, in the theatre district. These were Judy’s heroes, the performers and comedy stars Judy learned from, and her famous tag line, that she often ended her act with. “It could happen!” – would have been the best approach to the solo show, based on his true story, in “The Mushroom Cure.”
In it, Strauss traces his tortured journey battling OCD tendencies, and his hope that a sweet-faced Kansas farm girl [who could pass for a Broadway chorine, like Laurey in “Oklahoma! – look it up] in, of all places, a crowded Times Square. Strauss has a miserable record meeting and keeping girl friends, but this time – they click. His mission that night was to connect with his long-time, unreliable dealer nicknamed ‘Slo,’ describing his approach to everything. Well, Strauss’ journey introduced him to his ideal: Grace.
His purpose? To score mushrooms Strauss has read about, that could manage to give him some relief for his debilitating obsessive compulsive disorderliness that has taken over his life. Instead, he meets Grace, among this sea of selfie-snapping, Hershey Store-patronizing, famous face-seeking tourists, shuffling along on all the available concrete walkways, and there she was! His Goddess! He was instantly smitten. He had to approach her! She was The One, proclaiming hopefully “It could happen!” And, as it happens, she was in Town, attending a psychology conference, and knew all about drugs, and mind-altering substances, having begun her own personal experimenting at the age of sixteen! The chick had creds! “It could happen!”
Strauss: “Let’s go back to my place.” Grace” “Okay!” And the next morning, they had connected, he was convinced that she was indeed The One! He rolls over, and she is gone. But alas – a phone number.
And thus begins the Strauss Odyssey of his struggle to wend his way through the types of ‘cures’ she is familiar with due to her work, and because of his determination to hold on to Grace, which includes a circle of sixteen red plastic chairs to form the circle of sharing. Strauss does not share well. But he and Grace soldier on, at one point matching up with a rather questionable counselor who has lost the use of his office, and now meets patients in Tompkins Square Park, staking out his professional bench, where they meet him. Doesn’t go very well, and the consultation ends when his next patient shows up, at an adjacent bench. ‘It could happen!”
Events eventually take them to a seaside house, where they realize, while cooking up some liquid cure, that they love each other. He is now, finally, able to say it to a great woman, one he really wants to settle down with.
Now, this is a ‘sharing’ of a personal prejudice against the one-person show, unless they happen to be James Lescane, with material he wrote, or Lily Tomlin, with material written by her partner Jane Wagner, or Patrizia Norcia, impersonating Ruth Draper, using Norcia’s original material.
But this guy HAS something. His material should lose about 12 – 15 minutes, and why it has not, could be for two possible reasons, typical in situations like this:  as the writer, he is too close to the material, and did not get strong, definitive advice from his director, James Libman, or his assistant director, Sarah Newton, or  as the writer, he did not yield to an observation by his performer [himself] that the text feels too long, and because the performer is also the writer, there may have been a reluctance to cut the material he has become so close to.
And as a performer, he has yet to master some of the finer points of presenting this type of narrative text. There’s a ‘still in development’ feel to it. What’s missing in the next observation is a cross-over explanation aspect – if you haven’t done any of the drugs described, or participated in any of the drug-related experiences [this is NOT a sharing], it’s very difficult to relate to the worlds of LSD or its many cousins, unlike, for instance, another currently running successfully-written play that mines somewhat similar territory “The Effect,” in part because the style of the text includes two main characters, and a few vital supporting roles, that taken together, fleshes out the story very easily, for the observer to take in. But someone needs to work with Strauss, because there is DEFINITELY SOMETHING HERE. He has a definite charm in his presentation and physical presence. He has moments of real genuine flow and comedic style, and writing. This show deserves to be seen, and be supported. Does the mushroom cure work? Can’t say. ‘It could happen!”
What does work in “Shear Madness” is the writing. And, the bane of any writing assignment – the re-writing. And, it may be said, that’s the reason this non-musical comedy whodunit has been running for so-o-o-o-o long. Originally, it was adapted from a play [‘Scherenschnitt’] by German writer and psychologist Paul Portner, in Lake George, New York, translated and adapted by Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan, credited now as ‘the show’s creators, producers and original cast members.’ Their original work was first done in a regional theatre on January 29, 1980. There’s some dispute over which play holds the title ‘longest-running.’ Warren Manzi’s crime drama “Perfect Crime” is the longest crime drama in New York theatre history, with an opening night of 4/18/87, and its star, Catherine Russell, holds the Guinness book of Records as the person playing the greatest number of performances as the same character [nearly 12,000, missing only four shows, for the weddings of her siblings].
But the underlying reason “Shear Madness” continues to attract audiences in productions still running in New York, in Boston’s Charles Playhouse, at Washington’s Kennedy Center, a the Al & Haek Theatre in Seoul, Korea, at the Theatro Apothiki in Athens and the Theatre des Mathurins in Paris, among more than 40 other cities, is that they have been granted permission by the creators to update the dialogue, and make local, national news and popular culture references in the dialogue. The night it was seen by this writer they weaved in Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement speech, urging the audience members who vote to choose who the killer is, to “vote their conscience.” Also dropped in, swiftly, were jabs at Taylor Swift, Melania Trump’s convention speech scandal, the departure of Fox’s Roger Ailes, along with a healthy infusion of malapropisms, such as “you’re a genital liar,” and “this is not rocket surgery.” To list them is to ignore the talents of these actors, whose improv skills will generate a brand new batch of flubs and snubs, all in good fun. And it is good fun. While they are all stand-outs in this field, actor Jordan Ahnquist seems to be the fastest and most proficient. And that same night, Cady Hoffman was not in the show, and her understudy, Mary Ann Conk, went on instead. And she rocked! [Plus, she’s a perfect Bette Midler look-alike and Carol Channing performance style double!]
A final reason it lasts so long in these cities is that each show is different, between the liberal flow of improvs so skillfully employed so seamlessly throughout the show, combines with scripted new material inserted by the production team, plus – the real fun of asking the audience to participate as a kind of jury, questioning the suspects, and then voting on who they think is guilty, that night.
Who’s to say why certain shows just catch fire – “The Fantasticks,” and “Line” in New York, “The Bald Soprano” in Paris, and Agatha Christie’s masterwork in London since 1952, of murder and suspense, “The Mousetrap.” It appears that this modest one-set whodunit, which in the Boston production alone, gone through nine barber chairs, 96 blow dryers, 270 bottles of stage blood, 198 hairbrushes, 1320 cans of hairspray, 1560 bottles of nail polish, and more than 13,000 cans of shaving cream, has become one of those shows.
“Shear Madness” may also break a record for the most number of hair salon stage props used by any production. “It could happen!”
If you’re one of those folks who keep saying to yourself “I’ll be sure to catch ‘Fun Home’ next weekend,’ be on the alert!.’ There aren’t too many ‘next weekends’ left. The show with much of the original cast, including Tony-winner Michael Cerveris, will close on Saturday, September 10 . . . . and if you missed the much-heralded “Dear Even Hansen,” with a genuinely sell-crafted book by Steven Levenson, and music & lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, and directed by Michael Grief, moves to Broadway’s Belasco Theatre, with previews starting on November 14 . . . .and a very adventurous work with music written and performed by award-winning actor and musician Hershey Felder, and directed by Joel Zwick is titled “Maestro,” about the life and work of Leonard Bernstein. The play with music has previously played LA’s Geffen Playhouse, San Diego’s Old Globe, the Paramount in Boston, Chicago’s Royal George, the Berkeley Rep, the Allen Theatre in Cleveland, New York’s Town Hall, and other venues before launching a Big Apple run on August 31st at the 59 East 59 Theatres, in a run that lasts until October 16th.
At a time when the topic of immigrants and immigration seems to be in the minds of so many, it’s interesting to reflect on how that subject intercepts with the world of theatre without having to stretch too far. John P. Harrington’s excellent chronicle about the birth and early days of one of New York’s most significant homes to early straight plays. “The Life of the Neighborhood Playhouse on Grand Street,” from Syracuse University Press  is a great place to appreciate where and how immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe left their mark on the development of the American theatre. . . . the same can be said for Harold Clurman’s “The Fervent Years – The Group Theatre & the 30’s” original copyright 1945, DaCapo Paperback, Original = New York, Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, which featured an Introduction to the Da Capo Edition by Stella Adler, and a span of eight years of photographs from Ralph Steiner, Vandamm, and Alfredo Valente . . . . and in an absolute act of love organized by devotee of theatre of the thirties, Allie Mulholland, founder of the ReGroup Theatre, a spectacular series of three book collections: “The ‘Lost’ Group Theatre Plays by John Howard Lawson and Claire & Paul Sifton,” with a Foreword by Estelle Parsons, Introductions by George Bartenieff & Allie Mulholland, and an Afterword by Jeffrey Lawson; “The ‘Lost’ Group Theatre Plays – Volume II – by Robert Ardrey & Nellise Child;” a Foreword by Wendy Smith; Essays by Daniel Ardrey, Allie Mulholland & Frank Redfield, and “The ‘Lost’ Group Theatre Plays – Volume III by Paul Green, Edwin Piscator and Nine Others” – Prefaces by Judith Malina and William Ivey Long, and Essays by Margaret Bauer, Tim Carter, Allie Mulholland and Marsha Warren . . . . and talking of America’s most versatile conductor, composer, pianist, pianist, author, teacher, librettist and television star,
check out the thoroughly engrossing biography by Joan Peyser – “Bernstein – A Biography.” It was published in 1987 by Katomo Ltd. a division of Beech Tree Books, from New York’s William Morrow Agency, and has, as one of its special features, the fact that it was written thirty years ago, closer to the time when he was still alive – he died in 1990.
TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre “Character Studies.” His play “Admissions”, received three New York City productions, all directed by Austin Pendleton, won the Best Play Award at the New York International Fringe Festival, and was published by Playscripts. His play “Maisie and Grover Go To the Theatre,” published by ArtAge Press, and wrote nine other plays and musicals, including the musical ‘Mister,” for Anthony Rapp, with music by Misha Piatigorsky, all having New York productions. He has written about the performing arts for fifty-one years, for publications including the international daily newspaper The Christian Science Monitor, Dramatics Magazine, Parade, Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, Pageant, Saturday Review, Reader’s Digest, the Robb Report and several others. He has taught theatre classes at HB Studios, the 92nd St. Y, Columbia University’s Teacher’s College and several other educational institutions. His new play “Labor Days” is in pre-production.
CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978, has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk. Its wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at www.carmellimo.com, the Carmel App, or 212 – 666-6666.