Offhand, I can't think of any other plays about the world of professional roller derby, which makes Rolin Jones' THE JAMMER something of a singular event. Rooted in Brooklyn in the 1950's, Jones' colorful tale--- of a humble cab driver who gives up everything to pursue his dream of skating glory--- exudes a winning energy that insists you accept it on its own terms. You probably will do just that, thanks in part to a finely-tuned cast and a clever, whimsical staging by the director, Jackson Gay.
Jack Lovington, a devout Catholic who clocks many hours in confession, has recently committed more than his share of venial sins: namely, lying to his fiancé, Aurora, about taking over extra shifts at work. The reason? He's been tearing it up at the local derby rink, and while he knows she'd disapprove, he just can't seem to rid himself of the passion for the game. Soon, Jack falls under the wing of a professional derby operator named Lenny Lingle, who convinces him to ditch Aurora and head out for a wild bus tour of the Northeast with a scrappy team of eccentric skaters.
It takes some time to get used to Jones's blend of high-octane hijinks and cornball humor, and the script's most successful scenes arrive once the derby tour has begun, and we start to see the tension between Jack's pedestrian affairs back home and his newfound glamor. Life on the road, of course, does not offer all the answers Jack had hoped for, and his journey of self-discovery has a poignance that, while familiar, is mostly earned.
Gay, the director, along with her set designer Wilson Chin, have assembled an intentionally shoestring production, replete with collapsing cardboard scenery, that seems appropriate for the subject matter. (The life-sized cardboard cutouts that represent other skaters are a particularly inspired choice.) The design pays off in a terrifically conceived scene, late in the play, that happens on the Brooklyn Cyclone, evoking the childlike wonder and imaginative ambition that seems to fuel Jack's quest in the first place.
Inhabiting the manic Jack is no easy task, and Patch Darragh rises to it with admirable grace. While Darragh seems a shade older than you imagine the character to be, his impressive dynamism captures the joy and the terror of the journey. As the team owner, the wonderful veteran Billy Eugene Jones squeezes plenty of life out of a potentially one-dimensional part. But the real scene-stealer here is Jeanine Serralles as Lindy, an eventual love interest (and fellow competitor) of Jack's. Serralles has the all-encompassing ferocity of the best sketch comediennes, and her extended, profane bout of audience interaction (don't worry--- it's with the derby crowd, not the real one) is the evening's most memorable comic moment.
There aren't a lot of theatrical voices like Jones's these days, and this script is remarkably (and refreshingly) free of either irony or cynicism in any real way. Like the 1980's film work of Woody Allen, THE JAMMER is content just to tell us a vivid and unusual story, without comment, and hope that the players' passion for telling it will be impossible to resist.