Proletarians are funny, apparently. Their low-class vulgarity and profanity makes us laugh because it’s an equalizer: However refined we imagine ourselves to be, we recognize ourselves in it. At the same time, lower-class religious devoutness, with its idealistic striving for purity, raises laughs for the opposite reason: We’ve already seen through its phoniness; to us it’s sucker bait for proles. Pull this scene back half a century, and conventional wisdom decrees that it’ll seem even funnier: Hopelessly unhip to everything we’ve learned about ourselves and the world since 1960, the poor schnooks haven’t even got a website to click on. ROFL, to some.
So, apparently, thinks Rolin Jones’s The Jammer (Atlantic Stage 2), a would-be comedy about the peregrinations of a starry-eyed 1950s Brooklyn worker, told cartoonishly in a graphic-novel style that’s often graphic but, sadly, not often novel. Its orphanage-raised hero, Bushwick native Jack Lovington (Patch Darragh), has no mentor to guide him except the kindly neighborhood priest, Father Kosciusko (Todd Weeks). Jack relishes the two drudge jobs he works—days at the local box factory and nights driving a cab. He’s saving up to marry Aurora (Keira Naughton), the girl he adores, not noticing that everyone else thinks her a total dog.
But Jack’s lured away by what he sees as a higher love: Ultra-agile on skates, he can’t keep his mind off the roller derby. For him it’s something between ballet at its loftiest and a joust with the Knights of the Round Table. Add a little monetary temptation from a cheesy promoter, Lenny Ringle (Billy Eugene Jones), and Jack’s ready to roll, off his home turf and onto an economy-bus tour of grungy arenas in rust-belt towns, with a crew of teammates whose scuzzy behavior sets a new low even for grunge. Inevitably, he gets entangled with the scuzziest female among them, loony Lindy (Jeanine Seralles), while his idolized Aurora back home, in her loneliness, likewise lapses. But when the tour collapses, problems get resolved, leaving this dime-store Candide and Cunégonde reconciled in their shared disillusion. Clinch and fadeout.
The Jammer offers a few genuine laughs, and its overall sweetness of spirit makes its intermissionless 90 minutes easily bearable, but why Jones felt compelled to write it, or the Atlantic Theater to produce it, remains a puzzle. The 1950s, even at their low end, have long since been over-mined as either a source of nostalgia or a target for good-natured satire. Seemingly trying to merge the two, Jones doesn’t catch much of either. He’s absorbed roller-derby slang—”jammers” are their teams’ point-scorers—but otherwise his ’50s feel inauthentic even as cartoon. Nor does the play’s substance connect in any meaningful way with current phenomena like the popularity of extreme-violence video games or the obsessive willed innocence behind the fundamentalist trend towards homeschooling. The story of a naive kid’s eye-opening encounter with the brawls, faked and real, of ’50s roller derbies might evoke many things; Jones simply plays it for facile laughs, easy ironies, and standard sentiments. No evoking here.
He gets some, though not overmuch, help from Jackson Gay’s production. Gay pumps the piece forward with a steady drive, so that you overlook the script’s shortcomings, using cardboard cartoon figures amusingly to swell the cast. Monica Bill Barnes’s stylized movement for the skating sequences, and for a climactic roller-coaster ride, has a minimalist humor that both gives the piece a style and comments sardonically on its substance. Darragh, looking wearily saintly as he fights his dogged way through his role’s one-dimensional mire, makes lamebrained Jack genuinely endearing. Regrettably, Gay seems to have directed almost everyone else to pour on the prole thickly, like the premixed gravy at a second-rate diner. The painfully predictable result: The characters come across as sensitive souls who’ve never, in their sheltered lives, encountered a working-class person.