Playwright Rolin Jones is not one to really brag, but he thinks he's made history with his latest work.
"I feel fairly confident I've written the greatest roller derby play ever," he says backstage at the Atlantic Theater Company, a smile never very far from his lips.
True, Jones might not have much competition: Roller derby hasn't exactly inspired much good stage work. But Jones found something endearing in the sport, one he calls "wildly American in its weirdness and dumbness."
The result is "The Jammer," a play from the Pulitzer Prize finalist and Emmy Award nominee that makes its off-Broadway premiere this month after eight years of kicking around in various forms and netting an Edinburgh Fringe Festival award in 2004.
"For the most part, it's a big 'ol dumb comedy, which is kind of a joy to be around. I might have more affection for this than anything I've written because it's especially stupid," says Jones, 40. "Hopefully there's room for it. No one will confuse us with 'Angels in America' or 'The Glass Menagerie.'"
Set in 1958, "The Jammer" centers on a devoutly Roman Catholic New Yorker who gets seduced by the hard-boiled world of professional roller derby and finds his life turned upside down. Jones' script calls for two-dimensional cardboard cutouts serving as characters, everyone pantomime skating on a track, and plenty of sex jokes.
"The spirit of the roller derby kind of lives in it," he says. "It's sort of like a big dented paint can. If it gets too slick, something's not quite right about it."
The play represents a homecoming for a theatrical rising star who has lately been spending time writing for TV series such as "Weeds," ''Friday Night Lights," ''Boardwalk Empire" and "United States of Tara."
Jones has been on something of his own slick track since emerging from the Yale Drama School with the play "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow." Blending whimsy, real heart and the fantastic, it revolves around an agoraphobic 19-year-old who builds a flying robot replica of herself to seek out her birth mother in China.
The play won an off-Broadway Obie Award in 2005 and earned Jones the right to call himself a Pulitzer finalist. It also provided a new opportunity: On the strength of the play, he was invited to join the writing staff of "Weeds." That led to more TV writing and an Emmy nod for "The Son," a 2010 episode for "Friday Night Lights."
While at first blush it might not seem that "Jenny Chow" and "The Jammer" were written by the same mind, Jackson Gay, who directed both plays, sees the connection in Jones' special world view.
"He likes to smash something really moving and profound up against something that's almost locker room humor," says Gay, who overlapped with Jones at Yale. "That's what I would say is his main interest: The profane and the profound right up against each other."
Jones has plenty on his plate these days: He's writing the movie script for the Green Day musical "American Idiot," he's written a pilot for AMC called "Knifeman" about a surgeon in 18th-century London, and is developing the AMC series "Low Winter Sun," with actor Mark Strong, about modern-day cops in Detroit.
He's also writing a show for IFC starring comedian Paul F. Tompkins — "really one of the 10 cultural reasons to live in Los Angeles," he says of Tompkins — and is mulling another East Coast stage collaboration with Gay, having rejuvenated his love of the stage. "I haven't had more fun in the last three years than doing this," he says.
Jones always writes his scripts to music — often just one or two songs blaring from his stereo on constant repeat. "It begins to sort of find its way inside the sinews of the script," he says. "My neighbors, God help them all."
A play about a roller derby sounds less insane when you hear Jones explain that he grew up in the late 1970s and early '80s watching the Los Angeles Thunderbirds on TV at night before bed. It was like watching professional wrestling on skates.
"You buy into it. Like anything else. You know it's kind of fake but about 65 minutes into it, you kind of forget it," he recalls. "You're like, 'Go get 'em! Go get 'em!'"
That actually pretty well describes "The Jammer," too, a work that was originally written in a "three-week fever dream" and now proudly attracts "misfit toys whenever it arrives in town."
"It ain't a play for everybody, but there's some bit of eye candy for everybody," he says. "It's 85 minutes. If you don't like these 10 minutes, just wait two more and there'll be something else."
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