Theater usually keeps sports at arm's length. For logistical reasons, athletic games usually defy theatrical reproduction, so the rare plays about sports keep them offstage and have settings such as Take Me Out's baseball locker room, or Double Fault's Wimbledon grandstand.
Directed by Kate Warner, The Jammer deserves credit for putting its head in the game – and not just any game, but the raucous roller-derby matches of the 1950s. Playwright Rolin Jones calls for scenes set at roller-rink grudge matches, featuring body-checks against guardrails and other no-prisoners moves. Dad's Garage Theatre's production shows palpable excitement over the roller-derby stage effects, which isn't surprising from a playhouse that stages the pro-wrestling-spoof improv show B.R.A.W.L. But though The Jammer rolls along smoothly at just more than 90 minutes, the comedy has trouble scoring points of significance.
Jones offers an enthusiastic immersion into 1950s nostalgia, possibly by way of the '70s incarnation of '50s nostalgia, à la "Laverne and Shirley." Tim Stoltenberg plays Jack Lovington, a nice Catholic boy from Brooklyn with a longtime fiancee, a couple of dead-end jobs and an innate talent for roller derby. Like Rocky Balboa's conflicts over boxing, Jack hesitates to pursue his dream, and he confesses to his mentor, Father Kosciusko (Matt Myers), his worries over the sordid nature of the derby lifestyle.
The Jammer's ensemble features plenty of actors who enjoy the patter of snappy old Hollywood character actors. Enoch King gives promoter Lenny Ringle the kind of moxie that defies embarrassment as he tempts our hero to become "Gentleman Jack Lovington" for a few months on the derby circuit. As announcer Bert Fineberg, Randy Havens' rapid-fire play-by-plays can turn borderline surreal: "This young man has turned what's supposed to be a cakewalk into a cake nightmare!"
Lenny wants to ensure a raucous match while courting TV viewership, and makes the risky move of springing Lindy Batello (Tiffany Morgan) apparently from a mental institution. Astonishingly foul-mouthed and prone to throwing fists and spewing vomit, Lindy can fire up a crowd while alienating her teammates. As the brawny, brawling Lindy, Morgan looks purely the part of a roller-derby alpha female from an earlier era and helps us buy into the cliché of the floozy with the heart of gold. Stoltenberg's tongue-tied rookie with a Vinnie Barbarino accent makes an appealing match as the opposites inevitably attract.
The Jammer completes Dad's Garage's season of ironic shows about loss of innocence, which included Reefer Madness: The Musical, Invasion: Our Town and A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant. The previous plays, however, all made very clear satirical points, with Reefer rapping oppressive hysteria, Scientology decrying cult exploitation of young people and Invasion tweaking Our Town's Americana. Superficially, The Jammer resembles a Mad magazine parody of a sports-themed morality play, and its greater purpose is harder to find.
The play gets some of its biggest laughs after Jack has a one-night stand and then suffers from venereal disease with the severity of biological terrorism, and nods to 1950s "health" campaigns. Overall, though, is The Jammer spoofing Jack's naivete as an extension of '50s oppression, or offering a subtler religious allegory? The themes feel more vague than nuanced.
The script hints at American social changes. Father Kosciusko finds himself threatened by the evolving neighborhood demographics and the arrival of Spanish-speaking Father Domingo. Plot points involving unplanned pregnancies challenge old-fashioned ideas of "good" girls vs. "modern" women. There's an amusing moment when Lenny meets a doctor, played by Theroun Patterson, and the characters (both played by African-Americans) give each other a knowing nod, as if they've infiltrated the bigoted '50s power structure.
It could be that The Jammer is funny to a fault. The ensemble proves expert at crafting amusing pieces of comic business, such as Sloane Warren's kooky supporting characters or Myers' shtick at trying to contain his disgusted reaction to the sight of Jack's never-seen, famously ugly fiancee. Cardboard cut-outs often represent rival teams and fellow players, a running joke that doesn't really improve with repetition. At times at the playhouse you'll see jokes that get short-term laughs but distract from the subtext rather than reinforcing it.
As per Jones' request, the show features no roller skates. During the derby scenes, the actors half-shuffle, half-slalom across the stage, then occasionally glide with skates built into their athletic shoes (bending the no-wheels rule just a little). The play shows a recurring interest in travel on wheels. Jack drives a cab and the team rides a bus, calling for clever moments of pantomimed driving, with the cast leaning to one side for curves, jerking forward at stops, etc.
The big heart-to-heart talk at the finish takes place on the Cyclone roller coaster on Coney Island, and the extended simulation of the ride takes on a floating-on-air quality, like riding an ocean tide. Warner's direction captures the moment so beautifully, the scenes almost suggest that riding roller coasters, driving and roller derby offer a kind of transcendence not touched by earthly concerns or even religious faith. I doubt The Jammer's derby competitors are meant to be holy rollers, but their love of the game shows the power of sports to sweep people right off their feet.
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