I really enjoyed the Pickleball rap.
Jeff Daniels' “Pickleball” serves up intense characters and a faulty narrative
When I was 8, I performed at a dance recital with my tap classmates. As the girls around me on stage made a few mistakes, I glared at them (according to my amused parents), furious that they were ruining my moment.
This oft-repeated family story came back to me while watching Jeff Daniels’ Pickleball, now having its world premiere at The Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea.
Because the five absurdly intense, competitive adult characters in the play ultimately seemed like variations of my 8-year-old self, which is a bit problematic. But we’ll get to that shortly.
Daniels’ play focuses on up-and-coming pickleball partners Larry (Ryan Carlson) and Billie (Caitlin Cavannaugh)—the former a middle-aged, looking-for-love single guy and the latter a widow whose wife died playing pickleball.
There’s also Sheldon (Lynch R. Travis) and Spike (Jonathan West), who are hampered by Sheldon’s injuries and a shared anxiety about an off-stage hothead called Angry John.
Towering above them all is an unnamed, untouchable Pickleball goddess referred to in the program as Perfect (Kate Thomsen), one of the few people in the world who knows how to execute “the killer return,” and who is, of course, available for pricey private lessons and coaching.
Those are just the play’s characters. As for the story? Well, let’s just say that’s among the play’s issues.
I’m hard-pressed to identify, much less explain, its unifying narrative. Instead, the play feels like an improv sketch that’s been stretched to fill 80 minutes.
Some recurring jokes almost immediately lose their comedic power: There’s no “sorry” in pickleball; saying the word “dink” at every opportunity; twirling out of scenes accompanied by dreamy harp music; and hearing the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly each time one player asks another, “Mind if I give you a tip?”
Yes, the play is meant to be a silly confection; but after a few minutes, I would argue, there’s got to be something working in tandem with that silliness to sustain the audience’s engagement.
The characters, as they’re written, seem childish (much like my 8-year-old self). They regularly run and hide from unpleasant, loud Angry John; with the exception of a few reality checks from Sheldon, they collectively lack the perspective that inevitably comes with age.
They also seem to exist only within the vacuum of these pickleball courts; and death-by-pickleball—which isn’t really a thing, of course—is portrayed as a bizarre noble sacrifice to the game. (The characters would insist I edit to read “sport,” yet another running gag that soon runs dry.)
But the blame can’t fall on the shoulders of the spirited, experienced cast (directed by Rhiannon Ragland), who truly throw everything they’ve got into animating an underdeveloped script.
Cavannaugh, in particular, swings for the fences, threading the needle of playing Billie’s grief as genuine in the midst of the play’s otherwise wildly broad comedy. However, the latter tips the scales so much that it’s hard for anything else to land.
As with nearly all Purple Rose productions, though, the technical elements are polished and well-executed. Sarah Pearline delivers a fittingly expressionistic set, with an angular reflection of a clouded blue sky on the floor, and a skewed perspective of an illuminated pickleball court suspended overhead, flanked by chain-link fencing that points our gaze toward center stage.
Lighting designer Noele Stollmack and sound designer Robert W. Hubbard amp up the comedy’s goofy flights of fancy (as when two characters suddenly assume the position of kids at a middle school dance, via Lionel Richie’s “Stuck on You”). Costume designer Shelby Newport lets the characters’ athletic clothes speak volumes about their sense of themselves.
Even so, no matter how much spin you might be able to put on a whiffle ball, or how snazzy your athleisure is, pickleball games are won or lost with fundamentals. And without a firm, sound foundation, Pickleball ultimately feels like a whiff.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
"Pickleball" runs through December 17 at The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park Street, Chelsea, Michigan. For tickets and further information, visit purplerosetheatre.org.