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Roller Derby-ish ‘Jammer’ comes to a grinding halt

Miguel Nunez (left) Josh Odor co-star Pine Box Theater Company’s producti“The Jammer.” | Phoby Michael Brosilow

Miguel Nunez (left) and Josh Odor co-star in Pine Box Theater Company’s production of “The Jammer.” | Photo by Michael Brosilow

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♦ Through July 1

♦ Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport

♦ Tickets, $28

♦ (773) 935-6875

NOTE: ★½ for roller skating choreography

Updated: May 30, 2012 4:47PM

Pine Box Theater rolls backward with “The Jammer,” a strident production that doesn’t begin to approach the relatively high standards set by the young company’s previous productions.

The so-called “King Lear of Roller Derby Plays” is under-rehearsed, but muffed lines and clunky blackouts aren’t the worst problem here. Under-rehearsed can be finessed. Under-rehearsed and unfunny? That’s a surefire formula for theatrical tedium. On paper, playwright Rolin Jones’ ostensible comedy does indeed sound like a promising romp, jam-packed with vomit, spit, blood and sex on wheels. On stage, it’s merely strident, tiresome and flat-footed, the last quite literally. There’s some fairly clever roller skating choreography, but nary a wheel in sight.

Directed by Vincent Teninty, “The Jammer” opens with goofy promise. It’s 1958 as we meet the innocent, earnest Jack Lovington (Josh Odor), a nice Catholic boy working a pair of dead-end jobs while spending all his dreams and spare cash at the local roller rink. Jack’s natural aptitude at skating draws the attention of one Lenny Ringle (Michael Kevin Martin), a roller derby promoter with dreams of making the New York Bombers a prime time television hit and managing matches at the grand likes of Madison Square Garden. What he can actually manage is a two-month tour of fixed matches in grungy venues up and down the east coast. Jack signs on for the tour, and in a Rocky Balboa homage, hollers out his fiancee’s name at opportunely melodramatic post-match moments.

The adventures of the derby contestants comprise the bulk of the action in “The Jammer,” but in truth, there’s surprisingly little action to be had. Cast members “skate” in sneakers, often battling with life-sized cut-outs in roller-fights far more cheesy than thrilling. It matters not how good the fight choreography is — watching someone repeatedly punch a plywood cutout gets boring — fast.

As for Jack’s derby teammates, they’re a collection of bad New Yawk accents and one-note cartoon characteristics, most of them a variation on snarling. As far as depth goes, this crew makes the denizens of the WWF look downright Shakespearean. The problem is a combination of Rolin’s script and Teninty’s broad direction; even a little subtlety would go a long way here.

Speaking of which: “The Jammer” careens into its nadir in a prolonged scene involving venereal disease so advanced it apparently has taken on characteristics of a dreaded flesh-eating bacteria. It’s not visually graphic, but the dialogue leaves little to the imagination. After the first few moments, it starts to feel utterly gratuitous and surely a gratuitous scene about infected private parts is nobody’s idea of good drama.

Not that “The Jammer” has any pretensions toward being serious drama. It is, first and foremost, broad comedy. But even the broadest of comedies should have some redeeming dramatic qualities. Or at least should be funny. “The Jammer” succeeds in neither.

Catey Sullivan is a local free-lance writer.

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