Zdenko Martin (Danny), Liam Forde (Luke), Jonathan Judge-Russo (Beardy Geoff), Michael Glenn (Joe), and Kimberly Gilbert (Viv) in Jumpers for Goalposts, directed by Matt Torney, at Studio Theatre.
Zdenko Martin, Liam Forde, Jonathan Judge-Russo (standing on bench), Michael Glenn, and Kimberly Gilbert in Jumpers for Goalposts, directed by Matt Torney, at Studio Theatre.
(© Igor Dmitry)

You might not think that a play which takes place in a scruffy locker room is going to reveal intense heartache and joy. Yet Tom Wells, from East Yorkshire, England, has written such a play, and Studio Theatre's excellent American premiere of it shows the full range of Wells' sensitive, intelligent writing.

Jumpers for Goalposts tells the story of an LGBT team of amateur pub league soccer enthusiasts called Barely Athletic, who play every Sunday in a municipal field located in the fishing city of Hull, East Yorkshire. The main plot is structured around a series of postgame sessions, beginning with a terrible loss to the Lesbian Rovers. These sessions are made up of vigorous accusations and sarcasm from the coach, who screams about flabby players that need exercise and a teammate who scores a goal — for the opposing team.

Yet there is a second, more important story taking place, one that unfolds in the moments when two actors are together talking about important issues in their lives, issues that occur far away from the soccer field.

The self-appointed coach is Viv (Kimberly Gilbert). The rest of the team is made up of Luke (Liam Forde), Joe (Michael Glenn), Beardy Geoff (Jonathan Judge-Russo), and Danny (Zdenko Martin). As the play progresses, it becomes clear that Viv's sister, now dead, was married to Joe, the "token straight man" on the team. We also learn that Danny has a crush on Luke, an inexperienced 19-year-old. Geoff has been beaten up for being gay – he always wears a silly frog hat with earflaps to cover the huge, black scar on his forehead.

It is clear that Wells' real interest is in revealing how much the members of Barely Athletic's personal lives intersect as a result of the team. Viv wants to take care of her grieving brother-in-law. Danny wants to tell Luke of his affection for him. Geoff wants to create a song that will express his feelings about hate crimes. Wells writes with a light touch, drawing his characters with a great deal of humor and an equal amount of serious emotion, without making them sound maudlin.

Gilbert is magnificent as the tough, straight-talking lesbian Viv, who strips off her uniform and puts on her street clothes like she's one of the guys. Forde gives a stunning performance as Luke, a sweet young man who has no friends and confides all the petty, boring details of his life to his diary, including which bus he takes to work. Forde is particularly effective when he almost whispers to Martin as Danny how sexually inexperienced he is. Glenn is powerful as the widower Joe, who never goes out except to play soccer. He still wears his wedding ring and can recall precisely how he met his wife.

Judge-Russo does an impressive split-personality routine, being depressed when his hat is off, maniacally comic when it is on. Martin smoothly demonstrates the agony of a man who feels intense physical desire yet knows he must struggle to make his conscience control it. Matt Torney's precise direction perfectly matches Wells' text. In the postmatch scenes, Torney's pacing is dizzying. In the touching scenes between the two, it is gentle and languid.

Debra Booth's set – a scuzzy, off-white locker room with a dirty floor – is littered with towels, gym bags, and soccer shoes. Sound designer Kenny Neal has put together a fabulous soundtrack of familiar British rock songs to set the mood.

Wells' plays often touch on sex and gender, but with Jumpers for Goalposts, where the gay characters outnumber the straight characters four to one, it's imperative that the audience forget categories and see the individuals: a group of warm, funny, and loving people who enjoy the camaraderie of soccer as much as they love the game itself.