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Theater Review: “The Complete World of Sports (Abridged)” at the Kennedy Center

This crib-sheet style of comedy isn’t for dummies

The Complete World of Sports (Abridged) is an entertaining take on the international obsession with competitive sports. Photograph by Mark Kitaoka

☆☆☆ stars out of four

Arguably, the hardest working man in comedy isn’t Jon Stewart (who does five shows a week and still finds time to bait Bill O’Reilly), or Tracy Morgan (who combines filming 30 Rock and constant touring with offending every possible demographic he can), or even the mustachioed guy in the Dairy Queen adverts (I’m using the term “comedy” loosely here). No, the hardest working comedians out there are probably Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, who, despite a punishing international touring schedule, various guest stints on television, and the demands of a weekly podcast, still manage to trawl the depths of pop culture for a new “reduced” show every few years.

The “bad boys of abridgement,” as they bill themselves, are back at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater this month with The Complete World of Sports (Abridged), following an earlier repeat run of last year’s Completely Hollywood. And against seemingly insurmountable odds, the show manages to be a fresh, zany, and entertaining take on the international obsession with competitive sports, spanning seven continents and several millennia. In keeping with the RSC formula, which started in California in 1981 with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and has been touring faithfully ever since, the show takes vast stretches of history and condenses them into 90 minutes or so of madcap onstage antics. With audience participation (look out, front row).

If they’re at all tired of this model, it doesn’t show. Tichenor and Martin, both writers, partners, and long-time cast members, are joined by “pretty boy” Matt Rippy for the show, loosely structured around the fictional RSCSN sports network which presents all three performers as sportscasters. After a few warm-up jokes, in which Tichenor falls into a narcoleptic fit every time the word baseball is mentioned (“this is a game where the most exciting thing that could happen is when nothing happens,” he complains), and Martin and Rippy play cavemen discovering the magical connection between ball and stick for the very first time, the schtick moves into what it really excels at: poking fun at the audience.

In fact, for a show so obviously geared towards sports enthusiasts and away from theater nerds, the skits can be remarkably esoteric. Picture Karl Marx and Michael Moore talking about the capitalist framework of football, or a French Olympian waving a white flag instead of the tricolore. This is no comedy for dummies, even if some of the more visual jokes can be amusingly infantile. A segment on soccer changes the rules to make it more appealing to Americans (each goal is now worth 20 points and regular ad breaks allow for “trips to the fridge and the john”). And the homosexual subtext behind a lot of organized sport (here’s looking at you, rugby) allows for a plenty of laughs along with a few vaguely off-color jokes—renaming a San Francisco sports team the Flames feels a little unnecessary.

As always, the strongest segments are the ones which rope in the assistance of the audience; possibly because every not-picked audience member is so relieved that they’re instantly drawn into hysteria. But local flavor is strong, with particular fun made of the Redskins and Virginians, and the cast segue so effortlessly between rehearsed scenes, physical comedy, and improvisation that it rarely falters into hokey territory. As the great Yogi Berra once said, “Ninety percent of this game is mental, and the other half is physical,” and it’s a reliable balance that the RSC seems to live by.

The Complete World of Sports (Abridged) is at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater through July 24; tickets ($39 to $49) available at KenCen’s Web site.

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