Is there anything these men can’t reduce? Originally a pass-the-hat act out of Sonoma, Calif., the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s most famous contribution to dramatic literature is probably “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),” though they abridge — and tour — frequently. With “The Complete World of Sports (Abridged),” the group has a subject likely to appeal to every kind of audience member, even the very short ones at Manhattan young-auds theater New Victory. Theoretical material is admittedly heady and some history is involved, but the RSC has remembereded to bring the secret weapons that’ll get a laugh out of any child: butt jokes.
“World of Sports” follows the three members of the company through the history of sporting events, from primitive rock-hitting to NASCAR. It’s a deceptively exhaustive tour, its intellectual rigor leavened by silliness of the first degree, with goofy ad-hoc costumes, humiliating tasks for volunteers and plenty of one-liners. “This is a huge break for Djibouti, who was way behind,” observes one of the players as he narrates a sporting event. (And when the joke doesn’t get enough laughs: “The hell with you people. That was awesome.”)
Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor’s script appears to leave plenty of room for improvisation, which is sort of the name of the game with the “(Abridged)” series. Tichenor in particular maintains a strong sense of what the audience is enjoying and what’s not landing on target, but it’s a little bit of a scam. One sequence gets huge laughs when Tichenor appears to forget where he is in the show and gets helped along by ad-libs from fellow performers Matt Rippy and Martin, but the whole exchange is actually in the script.
And really, “scam” is not a bad thing. People love to be fooled, as evidenced by a moment early in the first act when Tichenor appeared to pass out, causing Rippy and Martin to help him up and worriedly glance out at the crowd as if pondering whether to stop the show. Turns out it’s boredom-triggered narcolepsy. Happens every time somebody says “baseball.”
After an evening of this stuff, there’s only one possible conclusion: Tichenor, Martin and Rippy are really terrific actors. They’re funny guys, sure, but there’s a level of precision that is very hard to accomplish, let alone pass off as effortless.
The New Vic has booked a number of former buskers to entertain its pint-sized clientele, and they always tend to come on like gangbusters, largely because they understand that their main purpose is to get a reaction from folks with very short attention spans.
Like any comedy routine, the job of “World of Sports” is both to fulfill your expectations and surprise you. When, at the beginning of the show, Rippy and Martin burst forth from doorways covered over with black paper, one little boy in audience cried, “I knew they were going to come out of there.” Me too, man. And they knew we knew.