Prior to this past decade’s punky female-centric revival of roller derby — where heavy-hitting women with puntastic names like Mascara Massacre or Darth Vader Ginsburg throw elbows and shade in equal amounts — the sport had a surprisingly long early history. Developed in the 1930s as a natural outgrowth of Depression-era dance marathons, it gained popularity in subsequent decades, with competitions eventually being broadcast on the ever-burgeoning television airwaves. But by the late ’50s, when Rolin Jones’ amusing but uneven The Jammer is set, interest was in decline and the sport was starting to wobble on its wheels.
Jones, who also wrote the Pulitzer-nominated The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, focuses his story on Jack Lovington (Patch Darragh), a hard-working Brooklyn schmo laden with a demanding fiancée and two large scoops of Catholic guilt. It’s clear from the start — and from the arbitrary ”s” Jack drops onto the end of his words in his over-the-top Brooklynese — that Jones is aiming for laughs over realism. The character’s exaggerated put-upon-ness is enjoyably played for yuks, and at first he comes off as a genial parody of a View From the Bridge-style theatrical lower-class New Yawker. The broad humor and goofy tone keep rolling when Jack fulfills his dream of joining the derby, trading in his blue collar for a black-and-blue collarbone, and his pious naiveté clashes with the sport’s rough-and-tumble world of drinkin’, spittin’, fightin’, and swearin’. The play’s cartoonishness also asserts itself in Wilson Chin’s purposefully primitive stage design and thick-line unicolor props that look straight off the set of Sesame Street.
A lot of the charm comes from director Jackson Gay’s emphasis on physical comedy, and there are plenty of well-executed pantomime and pratfalls. A running joke builds up around the inclusion of cardboard cutouts as some of the play’s tertiary, and naturally dialogue-less, characters. Of course, most of the ostensibly corporeal characters, including the slick white-suited team manager (Billy Eugene Jones), the mentally unstable wild card and love interest (a very funny Jeanine Serralles), and a quiff-haired motormouth commentator (Greg Stuhr), aren’t that much more fleshed out. This works fine until the play tries to morph into something a little more serious and emotionally textured at the end, but as with the production’s pop-up-book scenery, the illusion of depth is never entirely believable. B