January 30, 2013

"The Jammer":A Sports Play That Wins Smiles

The Jammer, the roller derby comedy that opened at the Atlantic Stage 2 last week, is a goofball of a show.  And I mean that as a total compliment 

Unless the action is set in a locker room, sports stories rarely score on stage.  It’s too hard to duplicate the visceral thrill of a dunked basket or an intercepted pass within the confines of a proscenium.  But it's a real hoot to watch the clever way that director Jackson Gay and her movement consultant Monica Bill Barnes have devised to simulate competitive roller skating moves in The Jammer.
The action takes place in 1958 when roller derby was a staple on TV (although a Playbill insert lists a half dozen groups—the Connecticut Roller Girls and the Long Island Roller Rebels among them—that still play the game). The show's hero is Jack Lovington, a blue collar Candide who grew up in a Catholic orphanage (he makes confession three times a day) drives a cab, and tolerates the nagging of his longtime and legendarily homely fiancée, all the while dreaming of glory as a roller derby star.

As luck, and the demands of playwright Rolin Jones’ loose-limbed plot would have it, Lennie Ringle, a slick skating impresario, catches a ride in Jack’s cab and offers him a chance to try out for his team. 

It’s no spoiler to say that Jack is an instant hit as a jammer, the player who scores points by elbowing his way past the opposing team, and is invited to join the pro circuit, where he finds a colorful crew of male and female skaters and, in true bildungsroman fashion, also discovers his true self (click here to read more about the show's genesis). 
Patch Darragh makes Jack loony and lovable at the same time. The other skaters are a collection of Guys and Dolls-type characters  (Cindy Gums, Specs Macedo, Jerry ”Three Nuts” Kiger) and the cast, who mainly double and triple in the roles, plays them with deliciously cartoonish verve.
The production team—lead by Wilson Chin’s scenic design and Jessica Ford’s costumes—gets in on the jokes too and there are loads of delightful sight gags, including a very sweet one towards the end of the show.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most enjoyable sports plays to come along over the last couple of years—The Jammer and Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity—have been set in the worlds of competitive roller skating and pro wrestling, which are as much about show biz as they are about athletics and experienced at concocting morality tales for their fans. 
The Jammer, which is playing through Feb. 17, doesn’t have the ambition or intellectual heft that Chad Deity, a Pultizer finalist, has (click here to read my review of that) but it’s got, as sports announcers like to say, plenty of heart.

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