Lombardi, at Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: ** out of ****
Lombardi was the 11th pick in my fall 2010 Broadway draft and it was a bit of a longshot. Although I went through a sports fan phase as a teenager, it's been awhile since I've watched a football game.
But I figured, Vince Lombardi was an iconic figure in the 1960s, the period in American history that interests me the most. While I'm pretty well-versed in the era's politics and culture, I'm a few yards short of a first down when it comes to the sports highlights.
So I went into Eric Simonson's play hoping to learn what made Lombardi such a legendary football coach, to the point where the NFL named the Super Bowl trophy after him, and wanting to get a sense of his place in the midst of that tumultuous decade.
Well, there is a fascinating story here and a terrific, nuanced performance. It comes from Judith Light, as Lombardi's wife, Marie. She is sublime, absolutely the most interesting character onstage.
In the title role, Dan Lauria (best known as the father of Fred Savage on The Wonder Years) looks like the Green Bay Packers coach. But that's not enough for a winning performance, in my opinion. I felt like he got by too much on bluster and Vince Lombardi remained elusive.
The premise of the play also seemed contrived and not very dramatic - a writer from Look magazine has come to Green Bay in November 1965 to do a story on Lombardi, in the wake of an unflattering piece that ran in Esquire.
Keith Nobbs is appealing as Michael McCormick, youthful and eager to make a splash on his first big assignment. But he doesn't act like any reporter I know. He lives with the Lombardis during his week in Green Bay. He prefers to not take notes during interviews. And he's shocked when he realizes the type of story his editor wants. Wouldn't they have discussed that before he left New York City?
My biggest problem, though, is that most of what I learned about Vince Lombardi came secondhand, from conversations between McCormick and Marie, and when he interviews three Packer players - Paul Hornung (Bill Dawes), Jim Taylor (Chris Sullivan) and Dave Robinson (Robert Christopher Riley).
There certainly were moments when I got to see what made him tick. Lombardi talks about his frustration at being passed over for head coaching jobs, which he blames on the fact that he's Italian. In Green Bay, he makes it known that his team will only frequent restaurants that welcome black players. There's a passing reference to how he doesn't understand kids these days.
But I didn't get a sense from Lombardi of what made him unique as a coach, why his players revered him despite his toughness toward them, his relentless criticism. He just seemed loud, quick-tempered and stubborn and not very likable.
Marie Lombardi, on the other hand, was a different story.
The play offered a much deeper sense of her life: what it was like for her and their two children to live in the shadow of a famous husband and father, the difficult adjustment when they moved from New Jersey to Wisconsin. She tells McCormick that the three most important things to her husband are God, family and the Green Bay Packers - not necessarily in that order. Light handles all of this wonderfully, usually with a drink in Marie's hand.
Director Thomas Kail and set designer David Korins used the space in Circle in the Square well. I never felt like I was shortchanged in seeing the actors' faces in the round. The action takes place mostly in the Lombardi living room and on the practice field. (Ironically, the theatre is one of the few on Broadway that's not shaped like a football field.)
In the end, while there's one terrific performance and a few good moments, I was a bit bored at times. I'm not immune to having my heartstrings pulled by an inspirational sports story but Lombardi didn't quite do it for me. (Ok, I'll admit I did get a little choked up at the very end.)
It's possible I would have enjoyed the play more if I were more of a football fan. There was a cheer when the name of a New Jersey high school where Lombardi coached was mentioned. And there was an even bigger cheer at the curtain call when it was announced that the Packers had beaten the Vikings that afternoon.
Lombardi is produced in association with the National Football League and they've set up a nice display of Green Bay Packers memorabilia in the lobby, including signed footballs, newspaper articles and an old bench from Lambeau Field. I noticed a lot of people lingering afterward to get another look.
Clearly the play is attracting football fans to Broadway and they're enjoying themselves - and that's a good thing.