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Stage Review

‘World of Sports’ is always on its game

Fast-paced sendup hits announcers, athletes, and fans

By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / September 16, 2010

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LOWELL — One recent night, watching ESPN with bleary eyes and an even blearier brain, I heard a bombastic sportscaster spouting nonsensical catch-phrases and thought to myself: “This guy is beyond satire.’’

How wrong I was.

With “The Complete World of Sports (abridged),’’ now receiving its East Coast premiere at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, the merry pranksters of the Reduced Shakespeare Company do to the culture of sports what they have previously done to the Bard, the Bible, Hollywood, and American history: They reduce it to its absurdist essence.

The result is a fast-moving and deeply funny farrago, a neo-vaudevillian sendup that manages to be both merciless and affectionate as it parodies not just the stentorian gasbags who favor us with their televised sports commentary, but also the athletes who are the objects of their, um, insights.

Nor does “Sports’’ spare the kind of get-a-life fans who (to choose an example at random) might waste their brain cells watching ESPN at night when they really ought to be reading Jonathan Franzen’s new novel.

“Sports’’ is performed by a versatile, limber, and indefatigable cast of three performers: Matt Rippy, Reed Martin, and Austin Tichenor, the latter two of whom co-wrote “Sports’’ and share directing duties. All three are savvy enough to know that they only have to tweak the reality of the sports-media complex a couple of degrees to find the humor, because there is so much in our obsession with games and the people who play them that is intrinsically comical once you stop to think about it.

Not that the helter-skelter pace of “Sports’’ gives you much time to think about it. The premise is that three sportscasters are attempting to cover the entire recorded history of sports in under two hours. They are attired for this challenge in “Monday Night Football’’-style gray blazers, shorts, knee pads, and sneakers. Rippy, the clean-cut, all-American boy type — he describes his role on the broadcast team as “the telegenic eye candy who will just stand here and look pretty’’ — wears a Patriots jersey with Tom Brady’s No. 12. Martin, who has a smooth dome and the rubber face of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus clown he used to be, wears a Red Sox jersey under his jacket.

Tichenor, who refuses to switch from his booming “game voice,’’ even during normal conversation, has the habit — problematic for a sportscaster — of collapsing in a dead faint when anyone says the word “baseball.’’ Why? Because, he insists, baseball is so boring. His proof? That a no-hitter is considered the ultimate baseball feat. “The most exciting thing that can happen is when nothing happens,’’ Tichenor points out, with so-there logic.

Plenty happens in “Sports,’’ and baseball is not the only sport to get its comeuppance. Soccer, cricket, football, NASCAR racing, rugby, golf, and even hurling (they have a novel theory on how it got its name) are also burlesqued. The troupe operates on the barrage theory, wherein one sketch rapidly gives way to another, and then another, blending slapstick, sight gags, hernia-inducing puns, and genuine verbal wit.

Racing the clock, they deliver breathless sports updates while enacting athletic scenes from prehistoric days, the Greece and Rome of antiquity, the Elizabethan era (“Ophelia failed her swimming trials’’), the Revolutionary War era, the 20th century (“Babe Ruth has tested positive for beer and hookers’’), and the present day, when something called “mixed martial arts’’ is considered a sport.

In one scene, they portray the kind of yammering yahoos who clog the phone lines of sports-radio stations, except that these macho fans are fiercely debating the finer points of women’s sports. In another sketch, they spoof inane jock-talk, as Tichenor plays a football coach who squints at his cliché manual before delivering choice bits of wisdom to his players like: “You’ve got to want it bad.’’ To which Rippy replies helpfully: “It should be badly, coach. It’s an adverb.’’ There are certain targets too ripe to pass up — Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps, schmaltzy sports movies like “Field of Dreams,’’ even Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown — and the trio does not pass them up.

My advice is that you not pass up “The Complete World of Sports (abridged).’’ Franzen can wait.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

THE COMPLETE WORLD OF SPORTS (ABRIDGED)

Written and directed by: Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor

Costumes, Julia Kwitchoff. Sound, Zach Moore and Joe Winkler. Backdrop design, Dottie Marshall Englis. Presented by Reduced Shakespeare Company.

At: Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell, through Oct. 3. Tickets: 978-654-4678, www.merrimackrep.org