How gently can you make a joke about a largely gay soccer team called Barely Athletic struggling to beat a squad of transgender players in heels? This kind of thing comes across as sweet and feather-light in the way that English writer Tom Wells handles it in “Jumpers for Goalposts.” Barely Athletic is a band of outsiders and underdogs, notwithstanding the mouthy lesbian coach, and there’s a bashfulness to this tender play that makes you want to put your arm around it.
The passport stamp from the British Isles gets sharper all the time at Studio Theatre, where the U.S. premiere of “Jumpers” opened Sunday. Wells’s script is decidedly offbeat: You may be hard-pressed to name a recent play as ginger as this. Yes, there’s locker-room swearing and brave talk of sex, but don’t be fooled. These are the kinds of misfits who have trouble sorting out how to open a door as they leave the room.
That’s Luke’s problem, anyway. Luke is a smiling, reedy kid played by Liam Forde as if he’s always flinching and ducking away from something about to whack him. Luke has been recruited to the team by Danny (handsome Zdenko Martin, in a turn almost as shy as Forde’s).
There’s a spark between these two, but it’s gravely complicated: All the lives are in this five-character drama. Joe (Michael Glenn), the team’s token straight player, is grieving for his late wife. The dead woman was the sister of Viv (Kimberly Gilbert), the coach and pub owner who’s so abrasive that the lesbian unit kicked her off their team. (It’s an LGBT pub soccer league.) A big guy named Beardy (Jonathan Judge-Russo) wears a childish knit cap with bearlike ears, but he has a serious reason. It’s startling when he finally takes it off.
You can’t make great claims for this play in terms of jolting themes or jazzy style, and during the chummy postgame breakdowns led by Viv, Gilbert’s driven and comically exasperated coach, you may fear “Jumpers” is a formulaic trifle. But it deepens, and like Tarell Alvin McCraney’s similarly themed “Choir Boy” earlier this year at Studio, the touching performances and graceful writing add up. Director Matt Torney and his cast have a good feel for Wells’s kindhearted jokes — this is nothing like the corrosive comedy of Studio’s hit “Bad Jews,” returning next season — and for how the off-kilter razzing and pileup of defeats lead to hanging heads and cautious repair work among the characters. For a locker-room play, it’s astoundingly decent.
By Tom Wells. Directed by Matt Torney. Lights, Michael Giannitti; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; sound design, Kenny Neal. About two hours. Through June 21 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Tickets $44-$88. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.