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"Shear Madness" ***

Reprised comedy by Paul Portner.

Directed by Roger Forbes for Studio Arena Theatre.

Continues through May 1 in the Tralf, 622 Main St. 856-5650.

"Shear Madness," a comedy acclaimed by audiences but trashed by critics -- surviving the latter to become the longest-running nonmusical play in America -- is back in town, this time in cabaret-style, upstairs at the Tralf, normally a jazz venue, a place perfectly at home with improvisation. Roger Forbes returns to direct nearly the same cast from this Studio Arena Theatre hit of two seasons ago.

Studio Arena took some abuse about "Shear Madness" when it had an extended run in 2003.

But, who can argue with the success of this work by an obscure Swiss playwright, one that began life as a serious murder-mystery? "Shear Madness" just passed the 10,000 performance mark in Boston (25 years' worth), the Kennedy Center's production isn't that far behind, and world capitals have all had their chuckles at this silly, vacuous and yes, stupid, play that former school teachers and part-time actors Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan made into a comedy after paying a pittance for the rights.

Well, decide for yourself. The scene is a unisex hair salon on Elmwood Avenue. Owner Tony Whitcomb, flamboyantly gay -- every character in this play is over-the-top -- opens shop and is joined by a succession of customers: oily Eddie Lawrence, an antique salesman; blue-haired Mrs. Shubert; and two guys who turn out to be undercover cops. Also along is Tony's assistant, Barbara.

From the opening moments, "Shear Madness" is rife with physical humor, double-meanings, awful, groaner jokes. The mincing Tony is the butt of these. Sorry.

Trouble intrudes. A tenant, Isabel Czerny, is found murdered. She's a former classical musician who has been taking Viagra because she heard it helped old pianists. So, whodunit? Motives abound and the case is getting nowhere until Detective Rossetti -- again brilliantly played by Christopher Tarjan, a veteran of "Shear Madness" shows everywhere -- turns the investigation over to the audience. Alibis are needed, clues have to be found.

And this is why this production of "Shear Madness" is so much better this time around. Anton Chekhov has never played the Tralf. Neither did Eugene O'Neill. The space is intimate, tables close together, adult beverages served, best behavior on hold. When Rossetti begins his questions, amateur sleuths come out of the woodwork. Those alibis are shot down, sequences of events are laid out, X-rated cross-examining comes from the back of the room. The original Studio Arena production had its raucous moments, but the Tralf turns everything up a notch.

Tony was the killer the night I voted. "What made you do it?" quizzes Rossetti, "What kind of mood were you in?" "Sassy, I guess," replies Tony. When Jimmy Janowski, a premier Buffalo drag queen, delivers that line . . . well, you'd just have to be there.

The cast is again fine. Janowski is hilarious. When he stares down an audience accuser, he points: "I know him! I just didn't recognize him with his clothes on!" Tarjan makes the entire night go, working the crowd masterfully, misusing the language regularly. To the crowd: "You people have been indisposable." Tarjan is a marvel.

Jeanne Cairns is wonderfully ditzy again; Richard Wesp often looks bemused and vaguely uncomfortable; James Fuetterer is the dense Officer Thomas; and newcomer Margot Moreland is the gum-chewing Barbara.

Part of the wide appeal of "Shear Madness" is its local references, and the authors have done their homework: Erie County budget woes, hockey's demise, personal injury lawyers, streets, personalities.

"Shear Madness" may be dumb and cleverly manipulative, but it's very funny.

With all the bad news out there, I welcome it back to Buffalo. It's a foolish treat.