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“There’s no shame in losing to the lesbians, Viv,” says an amateur footballer to his beleaguered coach in Jumpers for Goalposts, the first play from Brit wunderkind Tom Wells to be produced in the United States. Set entirely in the locker room of a public soccer pitch in Hull, a port city on the northeast coast of England, Wells’ tart-but-tender romantic comedy tracks a season in the lives of Barely Athletic, one of the least-feared competitors in their LGBT sports league. (Debra Booth’s dingy set is persuasive, down to the green U.K.-style running-silhouette exit sign.) They’re routinely trounced by the likes of Tranny United and the Lesbian Rovers, possibly because they’re beset on all sides by personal troubles: Joe, the team’s “Token Straight” (per his jersey), is a recent widower. Beardy refuses to stop sleeping with the enemy, or to remove the juvenile stocking cap, replete with googly eyes and tassels, that he has taken to wearing even on the field. Danny is nursing a crush on his teammate Luke, a bashful virgin naive enough to label his diary D-I-A-R-Y and who, as Beardy observes, “struggles with doorknobs.” And their leader, Viv, is in mourning for her sister, Joe’s late wife. Fortunately for us, her main outlet for her grief is to upbraid her players’ C-minus effort with A-plus ardor.
Viv is played by the great Kimberly Gilbert. Though Jumpers marks her Studio Theatre debut, she’s been a treasure of D.C. stages for a decade-plus: The Helen Hayes Award she picked up last month for her performance in Woolly Mammoth’s 2014 Marie Antoinette (Outstanding Lead Actress in a Play, Hayes production, if you wanna be a stickler about it) was somehow her first. In shows as different as Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, which had an early production at Woolly five years ago on its way to winning a Pulitzer Prize, and Round House’s Uncle Vanya from just this year, she’s proven many times over that she can do anything. And yet Combative Comedy Kimberly Gilbert is the one most delightful to witness. Even at her most acidic and eye-rolling, she’s never too cool for school: She wants us all to work harder, do more, not stand on the sidelines with a bored smirk and folded arms.
She’s matched here by the four dudes: Michael Glenn, Zdenko Martin, and Liam Forde (who looks uncannily like a pupa-stage version of Studio Artistic Director David Muse) as Joe, Danny, and Luke, respectively, while the Falstaffian Jonathan Judge-Russo embodies Beardy, the busker with the hot pink guitar. The version of The Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” that he picks out is surprising in its vulnerability, if less funny than his ability to deliver a recognizable rendition of “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” while gargling. By the time it falls to Beardy to sing the show’s concluding song, Wells has taken a few steps off the sentimental ledge. The final number is arguably enough of a spoiler that I won’t name it, except to say that Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Cash, and Bono have all sung it, and has a long association with the Liverpool Football Program (so says the program). Alas, the song doesn’t sit as comfortably within Judge-Russo’s range as the earlier, less martial ones did.
Jumpers for Goalposts would be even stronger if it ended 10 minutes earlier than it does, but Forde and Martin are so good in the maudlin late scene that I’m inclined to forgive the playwright for not trusting himself, or maybe us, enough to omit it.
The play continues through June 21 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. $20–$88. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.
Handout photo by Igor Dmitry