The final play in my series at Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre was Tom Wells’s Jumpers for Goalposts, a U.S. première. I caught the official opening performance in Studio’s Metheny Theatre, the matinee on Sunday, 17 May; the play started previews on 13 May and is scheduled to close on 21 June. This was not only a play I didn’t know, but a playwright whose name I’d never heard before as well. It was a delightful introduction to the work of an artist from whom I think we will hear more in the near future because he has an interesting and striking approach to theater and an eye and ear for human behavior which he portrays with a rare sensitivity.
Wells is a Britisher, born in East Yorkshire in 1985. The son of a farmer, Wells won admission to Oxford University and graduated with a degree in English. He returned to Yorkshire to study playwriting at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds; the company would début his first play, Me, As a Penguin, in 2009. Though he’d wanted to be a writer, Wells wasn’t considering playwriting—but the WYP program was free, so, the young dramatist now says, “It was a happy accident that I got there and loved it.”
Like Jumpers for Goalposts and many of his other plays, Penguin is set in the fishing town of Hull, a port city of a quarter million inhabitants where Wells grew up. (“It’s about what happens when you’re outside your comfort zone,” said Wells in an interview five years ago. “Obviously there’s a penguin involved . . . .”) The WYP production toured Britain and ended up on the stage of London’s Arcola Theatre in 2010. His next work, The Kitchen Sink, premièred at the Bush Theatre, London, in 2011, and was a break-out hit, garnering Wells the 2011 Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for Most Promising Playwright and the 2012 George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright. Jumpers for Goalposts premièred at the Watford Palace Theatre in London in 2013, a co-production of the Watford, London’s Paines Plough Theatre Company, and the Hull Truck Theatre, then toured Britain in 2013 (stopping in Hull) and ended with a well-received run at the Bush in 2014. Other plays by Tom Wells include Notes for First Time Astronauts (2009), About a Goth (2009), Spacewang (2011), and Cosmic (2013). (Wells has also written for TV and radio.) From what I have been able to discern, none of his work has been staged in the U.S. until now—but I predict that Studio’s Jumpers won’t be Wells’s last stateside outing. He’s far too interesting to expire on a stage in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C. (As I write these words, no reviews of the U.S. preem of Jumpers have been published. I guess we’ll see if I’m right about his critical reception in a day or two.)
All of Wells’s scripts include at least one gay character. (Jumpers has four—out of five.) His plays, however, aren’t “gay” plays the way that descriptor usually signifies. He’s gay and uses his experience of growing up and living as a gay man in Northern England as the material out of which he crafts his plays. The plot and the dialogue reference gay events and topics—Jumpers’ story is about a gay pub soccer league, for instance—but what the play’s about is friendship, reaching out, looking for love, trust, and helping each other out. It just happens that the people working all this out are mostly gay; but the issues are universal. As David Muse, Studio’s artistic director, explains, Wells “writes a straightforward story with characters who happen to be gay, presenting their lives as varied, mainstream, and normal. And he waits for a world where that act doesn’t feel so surprising.” In other words, what Wells is doing is writing about ideas important to him (and, I believe, most of the rest of us) in a medium with which he’s intimately familiar. Like any good, serious writer. (Tennessee Williams wrote plays on important themes set in the American South; Neil Simon wrote his plays populated by Jews from New York; Marsha Norman and Wendy Wasserstein wrote about women; David Henry Hwang’s plays are mostly about Chinese-Americans. ‘Write what you know,’ right?)
Muse says that Wells’s effort “to turn the assumptions of the ‘gay play’ on its head” is the second of the writer’s “two quietly subversive” intentions. “The first,” writes Muse, is “upending the notion . . . that drama is conflict.” The Studio head observes that Wells “is driven to write honestly about his experience of life, which seems to him to involve conflicted people trying to do right by each other far more frequently than people in direct conflict.” ( I guess you could argue that the dramatist’s “conflict” is internal instead of external.) Comparing Wells’s dramaturgy to that of Studio favorite Annie Baker, Muse concludes that the playwright “has a gift for making art out of the everyday.”
Since I haven’t seen or read any of Wells’s other plays (some of his texts are published in British editions that are available at U.S. libraries and through Barnes & Noble or Amazon), I have to take Muse’s word that all of Wells’s work exhibits these characteristics. I can attest to the fact that Jumpers does, and though some may find the writer’s dramaturgy sentimental or soft-hearted, I found the play charming and touching. The characters are all likeable, even endearing, though hardly high-achievers, and I wanted them to succeed—if not at soccer, at least in their other, small (or, perhaps, not-so-small), personal desires. (In tandem with Wells’s writing, of course, this effect is tremendously aided by the quality of the performances and the astuteness of Matt Torney’s direction. I’ll get to these successes shortly.)
The 100-minute, intermissionless Jumpers for Goalposts, as I’ve already hinted, is set in the locker room of a public playing field in Hull where the five teammates of Barely Athletic, the pub soccer (they call it football, of course—silly Brits) team which makes up the cast, change after the five-a-side league games. This is hardly World Cup soccer; it’s one step above pick-up or sand-lot games, and Barely Athletic easily measures up to its (intentionally) sarcastic name. (A word about the title here: in street soccer, the popular equivalent I gather of stickball in New York City, the field is whatever empty space the players can find and the equipment is whatever they can improvise. Often the goal is marked off with bits of clothing, such as jumpers, the common British word for sweaters or sweatshirts. “Jumpers for goalposts” is a colloquial name for this kind of soccer game and is the title of a series of video games and at least one book on the sport, published in 2011, that has nothing to do with the play.) Barely Athletic have the ignominious rep of losing all their games, so when 30-ish Viv is kicked off the Lesbian Rovers for being bossy, she appoints herself player-coach of Barely Athletic, a team made up principally of patrons of the pub she owns. There’s 20-something Danny, her assistant coach who is trying to become a youth-soccer coach; Beardy Geoff, a stocky (and, I guess obviously, bearded) Falstaffian street busker, in his later 20’s; Viv’s widowed brother-in-law, Joe, turning 40 and the team’s token straight guy; and the new boy, 19-year-old Luke, an almost painfully shy library worker who still lives at home and dutifully returns after each game for dinner with the folks even as his new teammates gather at the pub.
The five each have slightly different motives for wanting to be on the team. Only Viv (Kimberly Gilbert) actually sees it as a sports outlet: she wants to beat the lesbians and hopes Barely Athletic will be her means—though she gets her coaching ideas from a Soccer Coaching for Dummies manual. The others want to be part of the team for social purposes, the comradery and friendship: Danny (Zdenko Martin) has a crush on young Luke and wants Barely Athletic to be proof of his skill for the sports center’s manager. Joe (Michael Glenn) is still grieving the loss of his wife and the team is a way to keep from sitting at home alone in despair. Geoff (Jonathan Judge-Russo), unattached, isn’t beyond some serious flirting with members of the opposition; he’s also Danny’s best friend and confidant—for Danny has a secret which only Geoff knows. Luke (Liam Forde), who has no friends of his own and confides the insignificant details of his ordinary life to his diary, was attracted to Danny the first time the older boy came into the library to hang a recruitment poster. That’s just a nutshell summary, of course. Wells’s characters and situation have a few quirks and curlicues I won’t disclose that prevent Jumpers from being simplistic or predictable. Even the ending, which is a little pat and neat, isn’t inevitable—though the nature of the play suggests that it’ll be happy-ish or at least bitter-sweet. Just as there are speed bumps along the way to the final scene, however, we can predict there’ll be more to come after the play’s over.
Each scene of Jumpers begins as the lights come up on the thrust stage of the 200-seat Metheny with an unseen radio announcer (the voice of James Alexander Gordon, Scottish radio broadcaster famous for reading the soccer scores on BBC Radio) reeling off the scores of the matches played that Sunday. (The sound design is by Kenny Neal.) The five players file into the changing room and banter as they change out of their soccer uniforms and back into street clothes. This is how we meet them; the backstories and exposition is excellently handled by Wells—even Danny’s secret comes out naturally. Viv launches into her performance notes—but remarkably without recriminations or scolding. Losing, in Wells’s world, is okay, as long as you try your hardest and take your best shot—even if it’s at the other team’s goal! (Viv does try to get Beardy to lose his childish knit hat, his “good-luck” charm—not that it’s really working!—but he resists, revealing that he wears it to hide the scar on his forehead from a recent gay-bashing he suffered.) As the play unfolds, and we learn more bits about each player, they actually manage to win one game (against Tranny United—Get it? Like Manchester United—a team that played in leopard-print skirts and high heels on a muddy field!) and tie another. The rest, Barely Athletic loses, so Viv doesn’t beat the lesbian team this season—but there’s always next year!
The single set, a bare-bones changing room with a shower off-stage up left, designed with spot-on look by Studio’s house designer, Debra Booth, is the world of this play. The five characters may have outside lives—the pub, their jobs, their homes—but this is where the people we get to know live. The cast dwells here as if they’d been coming to this place for years, amid the left-overs of other teams, the dirt they track in from the field (which Danny sweeps up as the rest of the team filter out), the first-aid box on the wall, the folding chars stacked against a wall. Shared with other players in other leagues, this is still their universe when we see them, and Michael Giannitti’s lighting brings the whole place to drab, harsh—but familiar—life as the players file in after the match. The same’s true of Kathleen Geldard’s sports-kit costumes. These folks live in them, for all their lack of athletic prowess, they’re as comfortable in the gear as they are in their own skins. (Halfway through the play, Viv brings in new jerseys personalized for each team member: “Coach Viv,” “Assistant Coach Danny,” and even “Token Straight Joe.” They’re all comfortable with who they are to one another. This is not a fish-out-of-water play: these people are perfectly content with who and where they are.)
Torney’s staging is natural and straightforward, nothing fancy or showy; some of the actors even sit with their backs to us on occasion. He’s created with his actors a sense that these five are comfortable with one another and with their surroundings—this is everyday life for them. The movement, though minimal in the confined quarters of the locker room, is plenty for keeping the play from seeming static—horseplay, an occasional bit of practice (they try to make a goalie of Joe), changing, sweeping up, and so on. The life on stage seems neither practiced nor gratuitous. The play’s emotional life, too, is naturally modulated—no histrionic highs or depression lows. As Studio dramaturg Adrien-Alice Hansel puts it, “The conflicts and triumphs are modest but potent—exactly life-sized,” and Torney’s company conveys this on stage superbly.
With the help of dialect coach Gary Logan, Torney’s cast masters the Yorkshire accent consistently and (to my ear) accurately enough to be convincing. (My companions did mention that they sometimes had trouble understanding the dialect, and I did, too, but that didn’t detract from the point of the play, which doesn’t depend on foreknowledge of the Yorkshire idiom or British soccer culture. The things that do matter come through loud and clear, trust me.) Torney’s major directorial achievement, though, is to have melded the five actors, who don’t seem to have ever worked together or at Studio or for Torney before, into a perfect ensemble. For 100 minutes, I had no trouble believing that these folks are buds. Individual stage characters are the creations of the actor, guided, certainly, by the director—but a real acting ensemble is the accomplishment of the director. It starts with the casting, but it’s not easy to manage. Jumpers doesn’t work on stage if the five actors aren’t a team—just like Barely Athletic are supposed to be on the soccer field (. . . er, football pitch).
Creating the ensemble may have been Torney’s job, but those individual character portrayals are well seen-to as well. (This is an actors’ play—the cast and their work must carry the production.) I’m not familiar with any of this cast’s work, even the D.C.-area vets in the company, but they all give exemplary performances. No one falls back on stereotypes or clichés—not that Wells’s writing leads in that direction anyway—and no one shies away from committing to the characters’ more unappealing traits. Gilbert’s Viv, for instance, is bossy, but she’s no bitch dyke with a brush cut. In fact, Gilbert plays her as almost maternal—a little brusque around the edges, but if Barely Athletic were the Lost Boys, Gilbert’s Viv would be Wendy. If Wendy were a lesbian, that is.
Though young Luke is the obvious shy guy in the bunch, Martin plays Danny with almost equal diffidence. While Luke’s timidity comes from lack of worldly experience, Martin’s Danny is just a gentle person. His awkwardness when he reveals his secret to Luke makes palpable Danny’s reluctance to tell his new friend what we can also see he knows he must. Martin’s disappointment at the way Luke takes the news is almost too intense to watch (even though we can guess that a reversal must be coming). If Martin could pass for a healthy young athlete, though, Forde is the classic geek—tall, gangly, skinny, beanpole-straight. He could be a goalpost! He absolutely looks like the kind of awkward kid who’d have trouble constantly trying to push on a “pull” door. But Forde makes Luke so endearing, so in need of peer companionship, that his welcome into the group is self-justifying. Of course, Forde’s portrayal of the long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs makes Luke’s quiet return to the locker room after a breach all the more powerful.
If Viv is the mom in this ad hoc surrogate family, and Luke and Danny the little brothers, Judge-Russo’s Beardy is the older brother; though not always wise or even reliable—no Wally Cleaver or David Nelson, this big bro—his Beardy’s innately protective and present. Judge-Russo’s a bear of a guy, roly-poly with a big, round face, but he’s a teddy, not a grizzly. His Beardy is just as needy as any of the others, and as vulnerable, but he keeps putting himself out there, even when it’s not so advisable. Beardy’s a busker, a street entertainer, but Judge-Russo (who has some operas on his résumé) doesn’t present him as someone who sings or plays his (hot pink) guitar like a pro—yet his aim throughout the play is to select and perform a song in the audition for a Pride celebration coming up. (In the last scene, Beardy decides on a pop cover of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel that’s become a soccer anthem in the U.K. Now there’s Wells’s message for this play.)
That leaves Joe—not a father figure despite being older than his mates, but more like the concerned uncle (he is Mom’s brother-in-law after all). Glenn’s portrayal is a sad sack, as much in need of the team’s support as they might be in need of his. His (lack of) facial expressions remind me some of Buster Keaton, “The Great Stone Face.” Indeed, Glenn infuses Joe with some of Keaton’s warmth and sympathy. Even though Joe’s the only straight member of the team and despite his total lack of athletic ability—less even perhaps than any of the rest (the scene in which Danny and Beardy try to teach Joe to be a goalie is priceless)—Glenn makes him an integral part of the group, a member in as good standing as Danny or Beardy, as welcome as newcomer Luke and leadership-usurper Viv.
We don’t know what will become of Luke and Danny’s nascent relationship. We never learn if Danny gets his job at the sports center. We don’t know if Beardy even makes the audition, much less secures a spot on the program or gets the career boost he hopes for. We’ll never hear if Barely Athletic ever beats the Lesbian Rovers (Viv turns over head-coaching to Danny at the end of Jumpers) or even wins another game. But we can be sure that, as long as these five are together, they won’t ever walk alone. And that’s what Tom Wells wants us to know. I know some people who’ll see that as sappy. That’s okay. I’m a sap.
Now it’s time to see if any of the published critics agree with me or not and if, as I predicted, Tom Wells and Jumpers for Goalposts get their own career boosts on this side of the Atlantic. So, starting with the Washington Post, Nelson Pressley, describing the play as “sweet and feather-light,” writes that “there’s a bashfulness to this tender play that makes you want to put your arm around it.” “Wells’s script is decidedly offbeat,” Pressley continues: “You may be hard-pressed to name a recent play as ginger as this.” The Postman sums up, “For a locker-room play, it’s astoundingly decent,” but he warns that all the characters’ lives are “gravely complicated” and the play “deepens” as it unfolds and that “the touching performances and graceful writing add up.” (I cheated a bit: the Post published its notice on the morning before I wrote this part of the report. I already knew that Pressley generally agrees with me.)
In Metro Weekly, Washington’s LGBT magazine, Doug Rule also calls the play “touching” and “tender” (a trend, I think we’ll find) and “is as winsome as they come.” Rule praises the quality of the cast Torney assembled to impart Wells’s “quietly powerful and eventually surprising tale.” The Metro man, however, notes that Jumpers “tackles some big issues and aspects of modern-day life . . . in a remarkably realistic, restrained way.” A “tart-but-tender romantic comedy” is how Chris Klimek characterizes Jumpers in Washington City Paper, but he quibbles that the play “would be even stronger if it ended 10 minutes earlier,” ultimately forgiving Wells because the acting is so good in the late scene he thinks we don’t need.
On DC Theatre Scene, Steven McKnight, noting that “Wells has the rare ability to find humor in ordinary people and here he mines the comedy in the real-life difficulties of his characters with wit and affection,” reports that Jumpers for Goalposts demonstrates “heartwarming humor and charm.” McKnight does find that some of Jumpers’ “more serious turns feel a little forced or obvious” and that the plot “is wrapped up a bit too neatly,” but he adds that Torney’s direction “manages to minimize these difficulties.” April Forrer dubs Studio’s staging of Jumpers for Goalposts “a hands-down terrific production of a charming script” on MD Theatre Guide, declaring, “Each character is completely lovable and layered in distinct ways, so getting to know each one is a joy.” In the end, Forrer proclaims, “This play is a gem.” Jumpers is “a sweet, side-splittingly funny, and subversive romantic comedy,” writes John Stoltenberg of DCMetroTheaterArts, in a production “that will knock your sweat socks off.” Wells, says Stoltenberg, has “a wholly original angle of vision that, besides being laugh-out-loud hilarious, is heartwarming and liberating,” and dubs Jumpers “an incandescent comedy.”
TheaterMania’s Barbara Mackay affirms that Wells has written such a “sensitive, intelligent” play that it manages “to reveal intense heartache and joy “ in Studio’s “excellent American premiere.” The playwright “writes with a light touch,” says Mackay, “drawing his characters with a great deal of humor and an equal amount of serious emotion, without making them sound maudlin.” While on Broadway World, Heather Nadolny describes Jumpers as “heartfelt, well balanced and does not try too hard,” and finds that in a theater where plays are overwritten and underdeveloped, “this one is a winner.” Each of the familiar characters, Nadolny says, “connects with audience” and Wells’s “heartstring-tugging moments are balanced with hilarious jokes, quips and physical comedy.” The Studio production, Nadolny reports, provides “romance, wit and empa[t]hy” and she emphatically advises, “See it, and enjoy.”