Nipple twists, trash talk, and sight gags can't hide Pulitzer finalist Rolin Jones' madcap new comedy's sweet, bruised heart.
The roller derby is "a Godless place," a Catholic priest warns early in The Jammer, Pulitzer Prize finalist Rolin Jones' high-octane new comedy, now at The Atlantic Theater Company's Stage Two. The good father ain't wrong. Sex, prostitution and lies roll smooth as skate wheels along the show's 1958 derby rinks, spinning the ensemble of director Jackson Gay's tight production into predictable, but giddy, chaos.
After a dark and exhausted turn as Tom Wingfield in 2010's acclaimed off-Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie, star Patch Darragh's light and exhausted turn as The Jammer 's white bread hero, Jack Lovington, is a joy to behold. An adult orphan and devout Catholic, Jackie has never left the confines of 1950s Brooklyn, and his devotion to the girl he lives with, but has yet to marry (for shame, 1950s Catholic boy), is endearing to a fault. His discovery of the local roller derby, exhilarating with its speed and violence, awakens an all-consuming desire to experience something beyond his crawling life as a factory worker/cab driver. Fortunately, as derby puppet master "Lenny" Ringle makes clear, Jack's got the skating talent to ride right out of Bushwick.
The Jammer yanks all its momentum from Darragh's wide-eyed enthusiasm, which propels the plot out of Brooklyn and onto the road, where sexual shenanigans, gags involving cardboard cutouts, and despair over the unfairness of life can finally begin. Throughout the entirety of Jack's ensuing exploits, Darragh is a lovable leading man and straight-guy whose oblivious grin makes the antics of his over-the-top costars a vintage hoot.
Indeed, in the hands of a lesser cast, The Jammer would be a near-unbearable mess of camp, sophomoric jokes (one roller's nickname is "Three Nuts," because…well, you know) and pratfalls—I shudder to think what will happen once it's released into the regional wild, where Jones' one-liners could be overshadowed by easier laughs like black eyes and nipple grabs. However, The Atlantic Theater Company's flawless team of physical comedians (including standouts Todd Weeks, Christopher Jackson, and Billy Eugene Jones) has turned this production into a sweet, live action cartoon for adults--one that culminates in a gently dispensed lesson about the nature of long-term love.
What truly lingers beyond The Jammer's candy coating is Jeanine Serralles' handling of Lindy, the most violent and foul-mouthed dame in derby. Serralles' parody of a renegade mental patient on eight wheels transitions so quietly into a real, broken girl that it's almost like a magic trick, one in which a total bitch goes into a top hat and is pulled out a gentle rabbit. She may use expletives the way most people use punctuation marks, but she's got plenty going on beneath the f-bombs.
Jones, whose play The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow made him a Pulitzer finalist, has an accomplished background in television writing (Weeds, Friday Night Lights), and it shows. His rapid-fire dialogue snaps, while cinematic flourishes like doves landing on priests or vomit flying through the air feel as if they're pulled directly from episodes of 30 Rock.
Meanwhile, Wilson Chin's intentionally childish set, a series of line drawings on cardboard with cheap paint jobs, serves the production well by pulling audiences into a flimsy world that is more animated feature than documentary. But it fails in its construction when bits of the diorama come apart during the show, like the cutout of a door, which flopped over during a recent performance. The "amateur art" gag only works when it's not a distraction, as is the case when stagehands scramble onstage to wrangle rogue chalkboards (which happened at a separate recent performance). Here's hoping the crew anchors the damned foam board so everyone can get on with it.
Credit is especially due to Movement Consultant and acclaimed dancer Monica Bill Barnes and "Violence Consultant" (best job title ever?) J. David Brimmer, whose joint efforts give the skaters the illusion of the face-smashing competition needed for an audience to forget the play is staged in a tiny, stationary box. With their help, Darragh, Serrallas, and company plow through finish lines, jiggle across vibrating motel beds, and bounce up boardwalk roller coasters like marbles on smooth ice.
This level of attention to detail, plus the efforts of an infectiously excitable cast, make The Jammer a nuanced, albeit slight, confection. Like Coney Island cotton candy it catches the eye, dissolves sweetly, and then is gone, leaving behind a naughty appetite for more—just like a good comedy should.