NEW YORK (AP) — Creating the excitement of packs of hard-driving, brawling roller derby skaters hurtling around the rink ought to be impossible on a small theater stage.
Yet "The Jammer," a new play by Rolin Jones subtitled "A five-stridin' valentine," is in fact a wonderful, energetic and authentic-feeling recreation of those matches. It's an homage to 1950s roller derby and the pugnacious athletes who competed, fought, loved and lost. Or threw the race, depending on who was paying.
A kinetic, bouncy (quite literally) production opened Tuesday night at Atlantic Theater Company's Stage 2. Jones, a television writer and Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama for "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow." has written a fond look back at the tough denizens of Brooklyn and the even tougher world of professional roller derby in 1958, as seen through the eyes of a romantic innocent, Jack Lovington.
Jackson Gay directs the lively, talented cast of nine at a breathless pace, slowing down only when characters go to confession. Patch Darragh is intensely funny as naive Jack, a good Catholic boy in the body of a 30-something man, who yearns to join the roller derby because he's such a fast skater. Little does he realize that, as one character finally informs him, "the derby's a show and not a sport!"
Jack has his hands full romantically, having left Aurora, his girlfriend of many years, to travel on the roller derby's Eastern seaboard circuit. When he meets foul-mouthed alcoholic and asylum escapee Lindy Batello, (a fiercely funny Jeanine Serralles), his eye-opening adventures really begin.
The most inventive part of the action is the choreography for the skating scenes. You get the impression the skaters are truly careening around a roller rink, tossing elbows and knocking one another off the track, even though everyone's just animatedly skating in place. In addition to the credible efforts of the actors, the success of these scenes includes the help of Monica Bill Barnes, credited as movement consultant, and J. David Brimmer, violence consultant.
Billy Eugene Jones has a world-weary air as team manager Lenny Ringle, who still loves the derby as a "beautiful thing" despite having to rig the games. Christopher Jackson is quite funny as seasoned skater Charlie Heartbreak, who speaks of himself in the third person but offers sound advice to newcomer Jack, quickly nicknamed Howdy Doody.
Kate Rigg as Cindy Gums (because she bites) and Keira Naughton as Beth Nutterman put on tough sneers and join Serralles in some well-faked, boisterous women's heats. Todd Weeks lends both gravitas and a bit of tomfoolery, playing both priest Father Kosciusko, and the skater known as "Three Nuts" Kiger. Dan Domingues is sweetly comical as goofy bespectacled skater "Specs" Macedo and a Hispanic priest, and Greg Stuhr is authentically hearty and booming as rinkside announcer Bert Fineberg.
Another well-handled device is to have the skaters jounce around on chairs to simulate the motion of their tour bus. Near the end of the play, they also bounce around on chairs for quite a while, this time enacting repeated roller coaster rides on the Cyclone at Coney Island. The screams and antics during dips and whoopsies contrast with Jack's serious, increasingly emotional conversation with Lindy.
Kudos to the design team for creating a 1950s look, and authentic-sounding broadcasts of the derby matches. And congratulations to the cast for their stamina during all that skating and bouncing around. The only thing lacking is a glossary in the program, so we could learn that, for instance, a "five-stride" is the five little steps that skaters use to come out of a turn on the banked track.
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