Encore Michigan

‘Pickleball’ at PRT is a slam “dink” comedy for the times

Review October 09, 2022 David Kiley

CHELSEA, MI–Pickleball has become a phenomenon in the U.S., with the game taking off in Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Texas, Arizona and others. If you know a Pickleball player, or fanatic, you know that it is a game that can take over a person’s life.

That is the comedic premise of a new play, Pickleball, written by Jeff Daniels, which is having its premiere at The Purple Rose Theatre, and runs through December 17th.

“There’s no sorry in Pickleball,” is a line frequently uttered by the cast of players assembled by Director Rhiannon Ragland, and reminiscent of “There’s No Crying in Baseball,” which was made popular in “The League of Their Own.”

The play opens up with Kate Thomsen’s character paying her respects at the urn containing the ashes of a Pickleball opponent she slammed so hard with a return she apparently killed him. She factors in to the faint arc of the story as a leggy, hard, alpha-woman player so obsessed and adroit as a Pickleball player that she sells motivational and instructional videos and coaching.

There is a quartet of Pickleball players that accurately reflect the breadth of people who have involved them in the “game.” Whoops…I mean “sport”. Ryan Carlson is the oversexed doughy-bodied schlubb who comically pines for Thomsen, and sees almost every female player as a potential conquest.  Caitlin Cavannaugh plays a hard-charging lesbian whose partner died on a Pickleball court. Lynch R.Travis is the oldest member of the group who spends the 75-minute show with “blown butt muscles” that give him a silly walk and has him yelling “Cramp!!” several times. Jonathan West’s character, the fittest of the four, has the highest player “rating,” yet has several comedic moments of vulnerability and angst over the quality and level of his play.

Daniels has written a satire on Pickleball players reminiscent of his depiction of Yoopers in Escanaba in Da Moonlight. As is the case with any good satire, you take the truth of the subjects and blow it up big for effect. Indeed, Pickleball sometimes feels like it could be a recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live. Sustaining the tempo and energy for 75 minutes can be difficult, but the development of the play at PRT and Ragland’s deft direction to keep it moving, and using some dance movements and sequences to accent how hilariously and deadly serious these folks are about this game….er…”sport,” will surely make it a hit with Pickleball players , as well as friends and family who indirectly endure the obsession and snicker at their loved ones who are obsessed.

All the players are strong. Caitlin Canvanaugh, though, brings an extra degree of texture and comedic timing to her character to lift it out of mere over-the-top farce. Carlson, too, has a lot of funny physical comedy that centers on his everyman physique that contrasts with Thomen’s and West’s ultra-fit bods.

Overall, Pickelball doesn’t try to do anything more than create and capture the yucks of this fast-spreading past-time that, for many Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, has replaced tennis with a more manageable smaller court and paddles instead of racquets. And that’s okay. I suspect Pickelball will be a hit with community theaters and small, regional professional theatres, just as Escanaba has been, once it is available for license.

The Pickleball set, by Sarah Pearline, is striking in the PRT’s theatre in the round. A Pickleball court that is distorted for effect, properties are managed by Danna Segrest; costumes are by Shelby Newport; lighting is by Noele Stollmack, and sound is by Robert Hubbard. Patrick Ian McCall is the rehearsal stage manager. Dana Gamarra is the production stage manager.