There’s a strong whiff of the workshop about this Atlantic production of “The Jammer,” an endearing oddball of a show by Rolin Jones (a TV scribe on shows including “Weeds,” “Friday Night Lights” and “Smash”) about those wild and crazy boys and girls who skated professionally for 1950s roller derby teams. Rather than putting people off, the show’s unfinished feel should appeal to industry players who can see the (possibly musical) potential of this quirky charmer.
Affection, not irony, seems to be the motivating comic spirit behind the cautionary tale of Jack Lovington (played with disarming sweetness by Patch Darragh), a nice, respectful, God-fearing young man from Bushwick whose life changes when he’s bitten by the roller-skating bug. After confessing the sin to his priest (played by the versatile Todd Weeks, who warns him that “the derby’s a godless place,” but is himself a closet fan), Jack walks out on his two-timing fiancee and gives up his day job at the cardboard factory while continuing to moonlight as a cabbie.
Free at last, this natural-born speed skater (the “jammer” on a team) gets recruited for the notoriously rough Jersey City Johnnies and makes a sensational debut in a grudge match against the Brooklyn Brown Devils at Coney Island Armory.
Jack’s story is the stuff of romantic fable, so it’s fated that this innocent lamb should get carried away by his giddy experiences and lose sight of his core values. (In another era, he’d join a rock band or sign on with the local mafia.) It’s also predictable that Jack would get mixed up with a tough girl skater like the gum-chewing, trash-talking Lindy Batello (played by the one, the only, the insanely funny Jeanine Serralles), but will find his way back to his true love before it’s too late.
Jack’s romantic dilemma is cute — and the ornate love letters he pens are priceless — but it makes for an awfully slim storyline. Since roller derby turns out to be quite collegial, there’s no competitive skating angle to stiffen the spin of the plot. But surely one could be manufactured.
The education of this latter-day Candide kicks in when Jack discovers that those “life-and-death bombastic battles of interstate rivals” touted by TV game announcers are all a big hoax. Since the league players all know one another — and keep switching teams at the drop of a hat — those vicious team rivalries and cutthroat vendettas are pure theater.
A fair amount of ingenuity has gone into the stylized racing scenes staged by Jackson Gay, who also helmed Jones’ previous play, “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow,” for the Atlantic. The script accounts for some of those comic effects, like filling in the 10-player teams with cardboard cutouts. And period photos inspired costumer Jessica Ford’s goofy-looking uniforms and clunky helmets — great sight gags. But even for a Stage 2 production, much of the tech work looks cheesy.
The best belly laughs are put across by the animated actors, prepped by movement and violence consultants (Monica Bill Barnes and J. David Brimmer, respectively) who have them tearing around the skating rink and bucking the curves of the Coney Island roller coaster while rooted in place. Most of the nine ensemble members play multiple roles, including the entire team of the fearsome Los Angeles Stranglers, but a few sustain fuller-bodied characters.
As Lenny Ringle, the slick team manager who recruits Jack for the New York Bombers, Billy Eugene Jones is a wonderfully polished speaker of the kind of doubletalk that would sound smart to a simple guy like Jack. And Serralles’ deadpan delivery of Lindy’s earthy argot is all kinds of funny. Maybe she wouldn’t kiss her mother with that mouth, but a good lyricist might make witty use of that colorful verbiage.