Saturday, October 23, 2010



Lauria and Light in Lombardi (photo by Joan Marcus)


A play by Eric Simonson

Directed by Thomas Kail
Starring Dan Lauria, Judith Light, Keith Nobbs, Bill Dawes, Robert Christopher Riley, Chris Sullivan

Performances began September 23, 2010

Circle in the Square Theater
235 West 50th Street

Considered the greatest coach in NFL history—the winning Super Bowl team receives the Lombardi Trophy—Vince Lombardi is synonymous with excellence and winning, so a play about the man would be a sure-fire winner, right? Not quite.

Eric Simonson’s Lombardi—based on a book by David Maraniss—is an overview of the Green Bay coach’s life and times centered around the 1965 season, with flashbacks to when he first became Packers coach after seriously thinking about quitting football to become a bank manager in New Jersey, since he felt slighted despite being an assistant for the champion New York Giants.

Simonson’s straightforward style tries to ape Lombardi’s own toughness with his players, but the playwright too often lets tantalizing nuggets lie unanalyzed or scrutinized: was Lombardi deliberately bypassed for NFL head-coaching positions before Green Bay called? We never find out; Simonson simply moves on after checking off the incident. A far better sequence finds one of his players threatening to bring in an agent for more money, which Lombardi laughs off. Imagine a time when players made much less money than coaches, Simonson wittily suggests; it was a galaxy far, far away.

Much of the time, however, Lombardi plays like a sitcom, especially in the portrayal of Lombardi’s wife Marie. Hilariously played by Judith Light as a hard-as-nails Joisey gal who finds herself whisked away to Wisconsin and the “frozen tundra” of Lambeau Field where the Packers play, Marie gets the play’s best lines, tossing off withering ripostes and withering glares at her haranguing husband (who goes soft when she returns fire).

Our narrator is Michael McCormick, Look magazine reporter, who is writing a profile of the notorious, soon-to-be-legendary coach. McCormick’s talks with Mrs. Lombardi help audience members who know little about football, which underlines the play’s problem. It wants desperately to please two audiences, NFL fans and theater fans, and the first half-hour establishes Vince and Marie’s relationship with nary a word about football.

But maneuvering between Vince’s worlds of the gridiron and home (in that order, Marie sardonically notes) never allows Lombardi to escape the sitcom label, providing a well-placed belly laugh here or tender scene there: we half-expect commercial breaks. The play never enters the mind of the coach who was a master at psychology, other than showing that he yelled a lot—but always had a nice smile afterwards.

Although hampered by Circle in the Square’s in-the-round stage, director Thomas Kail finds clever ways around it, keeping things percolating even when bogged down by banter that just marks time (like several lame jokes about drinking). David Korins’s ingenious design cannily blends sets rising from trap doors with Zachary Borovay’s equally smart projections, which bring the football field onstage. Paul Tazewell’s authentic costumes include those classic green and yellow Packer jerseys, an obvious sign that the show has the NFL’s rubber stamp.

Dan Lauria resembles the late coach and expertly alternates the swagger with the tender moments: and boy can he bellow with the best of them! Keith Nobbs is an engaging McCormick, while Robert Christopher Riley, Bill Dawes and Chris Sullivan realistically suggest football players of an earlier era: however, a mere three Packers don’t show how Lombardi could manipulate an entire team.

Kail and Simonson use this glaring defect to their advantage by beginning and ending Lombardi with the coach exhorting his players on a bare stage—so the audience becomes the team—a device sprinkled throughout the play. Lauria makes the most of it, directly connecting with the audience and making us understand (if only fleetingly) why Lombardi is a legend.

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