Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 21, 2010
Lombardi by Eric Simonson. Based on the book When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi written by David Maraniss. Directed by Thomas Kail. Scenic design by David Korins. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Projection design by Zachary Borovay. Hair design by Charles LaPointe. Dialect Coach Stephen Gabis. Cast: Dan Lauria, Judith Light, Keith Nobbs, Bill Dawes, Robert Christopher Riley, Chris Sullivan, Javon Johnson, Henry Russell, Brad Schmidt, Jeff Still.
Regarding the second, let's be clear that both Simonson's characterization of football coach Vince Lombardi and Dan Lauria's portrayal of him are first-rate. The two united in that kind of warming symbiosis you can only experience in the theatre: where something obviously false nonetheless feels completely real. Simonson has resisted theatrical biographers' typical allure and not clogged his text with wall-to-wall Lombardi epigrams, instead fashioning a strong framework for a driven yet sensitive figure who is straight-ahead convincing as loving "God, family, and the Green Bay Packers" (if not necessarily in that order).
You see, through a series of breezy but never rushed scenes, a man who feels just as strongly about his team as he does himself. He draws no distinction between shielding himself from yet another journalistic hatchet job when he's approached by cub Esquire reporter Michael McCormick (Keith Nobbs) and protecting key Packer Jim Taylor (Chris Sullivan) from once again saying things in public that he might later regret. (Both have unfortunate histories in these areas.) For Vince, life at home and life at work are one and the same, yet he evinces no sense of psychotic obsession. This is a man who lives every second of life as though it, as he once said of winning, wasn't everything - but the only thing.
Lauria captures the man's distinctive loud-mouthed combativeness, true, but lets slip a few faint whispers of the just-as-fiery uncertainty that lies beneath. Looking eerily like the real Lombardi from his hunched stride to his scrunched face, Lauria never lets you doubt the man's confidence or passions, though he does make you wonder how anyone could burn so hot for very long. As the play is set just before the 1965 championships (which kicked off a three-year winning streak), Vince has not yet attained the mythic status he now has (and that, before long, would lead to the Super Bowl trophy bearing his name), and it shows in Lauria as a man who is still able to be hurt from without and from within, but who will never let anything stand in the way of his dreams and convictions.
You believe that this Marie, and Marie alone, could both instill fear in this legend and be the only one to break him out of a game-induced reverie. Light especially soars during the comic sections, most notably in a pre-Packers flashback in which a U.S. atlas plays a central role, but her laser-focused performance ensures she triumphs in the darker moments as well.
The energy that Lauria and Light bring, separately or together, to each of the Lombardis is approximated, but never matched, by the other members of the cast. Nobbs reads as too subdued as Michael: friendly, but not quite the dazzling go-getter that would seem to attract Vince's attention. Sullivan plays quiet giant Jim amiably enough, and as his fellow Packers Paul Hornung and Dave Robinson, Bill Dawes and Robert Christopher Riley present bright but generally indistinct personalities.
As for that second surprising quality of the play, Simonson smartly requires little actual knowledge of football, treating it instead as if a cosmic ideal rather than an actual sport. This lets Vince's numerous inspirational rants and encouraging demonizations (contradictions that neither playwright nor actor have any trouble resolving, by the way) affect you on a personal level, divorced from anything you may or may not feel about football itself. Vince, then, becomes for you exactly what he is for so many in the play: a somewhat shadowy father figure that understands great mysteries you can only hope to grasp.
Because The National Football League and a group called "Friends of Lombardi" are among the producers, you may think that doing even that would result in a whitewashing and not a more vivid portrait. But because Simonson stays honest about all aspects of the coach's personality, Lombardi is lionized without preaching or treacle. You come to appreciate the man for everything he's done and everything he is, positive or not, and that proves far more effective than mere hagiography ever could.
Football, however, doesn't come off quite as well. Because it's perhaps the most difficult sport to represent onstage - what can you do convincingly without at least 11, and preferably 22, people? - there are no live recreations of historic plays, just a few glimpses of pre- and post-game festivities. David Korins's spare set and Howell Binkley's plentiful lights suggest a basic stadium atmosphere, but not much more than that - Zachary Borovay's projections are charged with conveying most of the excitement of the strategy sessions and the few game clips we see, something they do only passably well.
But so what? Simonson is out to prove something much more universal, something with which Lombardi himself would have undoubtedly agreed: To succeed at the game, you need to be more than just the game. That Lombardi the play succeeds with so little actual football content shows how much deeper it runs as a dramatic work, and that it - like its subject - can't and shouldn't be confined just to the playing field.