That exception is related to the activity at the heart of it all: roller derby. So unusual is this mid-20th-century sensation, which in the base form presented here involves not much more than players hitting each other as they wheel around a rink, that by its very inclusion Jones's play earns a peculiar distinction. Most sports tales, after all, derive much of their pathos from depicting events in which the observer, on some level, wishes he or she could participate. So an attempt to fashion a similar coming-of-age story around something few today have seen and even fewer have played is unquestionably adventurous.
If only the play itself were. Jones has gleefully embraced every cliché in presenting the rise and fall of good Bushwick Catholic kid Jack Lovington (Patch Darragh). He longs for more than the menial jobs he must consistently take to make ends meet, and yearns to sate the hunger of his poetic soul in the derby he so loves attending. So when he makes a splash during an actual bout, after being "discovered" by agent Lenny Ringle (Billy Eugene Jones), when he's drafted into the regional league — where he discovers his problems are just beginning.
Most of these surround Lindy Batello (Jeanine Serralles), a rough-and-tumble female player who's always ready to accept money in exchange for affection. She captures Jack's interest on the road, while he's separated from Aurora, the fiancée Jack has waiting for him back home, and is having her own share of problems with fidelity. Whether Jack succeeds in escaping the downward spiral into which his wandering heart thrusts him becomes the central concern of the show's second (and considerably weightier) half.
Unfortunately, Jones has made it difficult to care about such things. His take on the genre pokes as much fun at sports announcers, product placement, doctors' offices, and even Coney Island as it does roller derby itself. It's a cute approach, but one that's just as one-dimensional as the literal cardboard cutouts that fill a variety of secondary roles. The gawky Jack, the hard-bitten Lindy, the duplicitous Lenny, Jack's various colorful teammates (with names like Charlie Heartbreak, "Specs" Macedo, and Jerry "Three Nuts" Kiger), and the clueless church folk (Jack's American priest is oblivious to his plight, and an uncomfortably hefty amount of stage time is devoted to a second who doesn't speak English) are intended as mock archetypes, and fulfill their basic dramatic duties, if without discernible flair.
But because they contain almost no individual flavor, they don't succeed on their own individual terms. The characters and situations aren't funny enough, and in some cases are almost bewilderingly diffuse. (The climax occurs during a series of successive rides on the Cyclone roller coaster, the running joke of which is the stationary actors' flailing hand motions, which grow wearying long before they've completed one revolution of the track.) There are plenty of riches to be mined here, as the recent Broadway revival of Golden Boy (strikingly similar in scope and structure), but Jones's fear of committing to one attack or point of view prevents him from finding them, let alone making the most of them.
The performances are intentionally broad pretty much across the board, but are most damaging from Darragh and Serralles; they're both clearly in on the joke, and if it's impossible to take their plights seriously, the rest of the play becomes something of a slog. Jones and Christopher Jackson, playing one of the more prominent players, project more balanced personalities, to worthwhile effect, but their attempts at anchoring their portrayals in darker emotional truths stand out among the neon-highlighted silliness coming from everyone else.
Configured this way, The Jammer constantly amuses but never delights. The richest pleasures come from Jackson Gay's staging, which against the odds maintains a consistent tone throughout, and cunning design in the sets (Wilson Chin, transforming the tiny theater into a vast array of Eastern Seaboard locales), costumes (Jessica Ford), and lights (Paul Whitaker) that successfully amplifies the script's latent fairy-tale nature. This evening is clearly intended as little more than an airy confection, but at least it's an expertly coated one.
Even a gourmet marshmallow is, alas, ultimately a marshmallow. Deeper enlightenment and deeper entertainment cry out for more detail and complexity than Jones has provided, leaving what's here feeling as evanescent as the roller derby phenomenon itself. A program insert helpfully reminds us that the sport continues yet today in the Tri-State area, but if matchups are worth seeking out or even thinking about twice, Jones never successfully makes the case in The Jammer.