Can “Lombardi” be the show to overcome Broadway’s ingrained disdain for sports-themed plays? That depends on audience expectations of Eric Simonson’s biodrama (based on a book by David Maraniss) about Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi. Fans content just to spend a few hours in the company of this great guy should be mesmerized by Dan Lauria’s spot-on impersonation of the famously hot-tempered Lombardi. More sports-minded auds, eager for insights on how this legendary coach famously guided the Green Bay Packers to five Super Bowl championships, might want to know why the show spends so little time on the gridiron. Lauria, the lovably grumpy sitcom dad on “The Wonder Years,” brings that endearing quality to his scrappy portrait of Lombardi as the surrogate father who bullied, scolded, cheered and dragged the Packers out of the NFL cellar and on to glory. Working off his own bulldog physique and gap-toothed grin, Lauria achieves an eerie physical resemblance to Lombardi, who used his whole body to speak his mind.
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The coach was a shouter, on and off the field, and Lauria’s fine ear is attuned to the humor of hearing that loud, raspy voice straining to hold a civilized conversation in an enclosed space. Whether he’s bellowing at his beloved wife, Marie (Judith Light), or shouting at Michael McCormick (Keith Nobbs), the reporter who has come to Wisconsin to write a feature story on him for Look magazine, Lombardi is too honestly outspoken to cover his thoughts by lowering his voice.
Faced with the challenge of streamlining a great big life into two puny stage hours, scribe Eric Simonson(who also feeds scripts to Steppenwolf) lands on a dramatic moment in 1965 when it was do-or-die for the Packers. They could either reclaim their lost crown as champions of the NFL or retain their humiliating second-place status and eat dirt.
To pump up the drama, Simonson invents the character of McCormick, the tyro journo (played by Nobbs with a nice easy manner and boyish charm) whose chorus-like function is to feed info to the aud without getting in the way of the action. Except, as the play is constructed, there really isn’t much action to get in the way of.
Once McCormick has been installed in the Lombardi household and given his first taste of the famous Lombardi temper, the play hops back in time to tackle the issue of why the coach is so obsessed with winning — and so threatened by the suggestion of losing. (Coming in second means being consigned to “the losers’ bowl … the toilet bowl.”)
In a telling scene set in 1958, Lombardi is living in New Jersey and so frustrated in his foiled ambition to be a head coach in the NFL that he’s thinking of giving up football altogether to become a bank executive. Lauria paces the stage (and finds no place to hide from Howell Binkley’s stark lighting) in this subdued scene, quietly intimating that Lombardi would rather die — if that wouldn’t make him an even bigger loser.
The call from Jack Vainisi, offering the Packers job, puts an end to those gloomy thoughts. But it comes too soon, dramatically, closing off the issue before it’s fully explored. And aside from a tossed-off comment, later in the play, that Lombardi’s mother was “a perfectionist,” we’re denied the biographical specifics of that fierce, burning, fire-in-the-gut compulsion to win and win and win and keep winning or you die. Or, even more to the point, of the psychological origins of his absolute horror of loss.
“This is a cruel and tough business,” he instructs his surrogate children. “When we lose, we’re gone.”
What we get, instead, are lots of well-written (and well-acted, under Thomas Kail’s attentive helming) scenes of how that compulsion drives Lombardi to the astounding feats of success he pulls off in Green Bay. Putting aside the question of why Bart Starr, the Packers’ star quarterback, doesn’t appear in this play, the team is well represented by Robert Christopher Riley as outside linebacker Dave Robinson, Bill Dawes as running back Paul Hornung, and husky Chris Sullivan as fullback Jim Taylor, the only player with “grievances.”
But it’s a crying shame that we don’t get to see more action on the gridiron. Although it’s constructed a bit like a football field, let’s be real and admit that the stage at the Circle in the Square can’t accommodate a game. Nonetheless, the dinky screens set up for Zachary Borovay’s projections are entirely inadequate, denying the production the game scenes that would have added more excitement.
In the end, the show hangs on the character of Lombardi and Lauria’s compelling performance. And while this inspirational figure seems oblivious to the personal cost of his drive for success (he neglected his health and died of colon cancer at 57), his wife is always standing right there to remind us. Light is an absolute treasure as the hard-drinking, straight-talking Marie, so tightly coiled in her restraining period costumes and hairdo, she looks lacquered.
But she melts easily, and whether he knows it or not, he’ll never be a loser in her eyes.