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A CurtainUp Review

This season. . ..will be the start of something new. With every fiber of my being, I'm going to make you the best football team that I can make you. And I'll try. And I'll try again. And if I don't succeed the first time, I will try again. — Vincent Lombardi
Dan Lauria and Judith Light
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
"Gentlemen, this is a football," says Vince Lombardi, as he stands in the center of the empty stage holding up with adoration the object of his life-long affection. You don't have to like or understand the game of football to experience the feeling of rapture that is conveyed in those four words as spoken at the beginning of the play by that sport's probably most famous American football coach/manager.

Despite being impressively portrayed by Dan Lauria in a manner intended to impress upon us Lombardi's passion for the game, there is only so much that he can do with the words that playwright Eric Simonson gives him. After all, according to what we already know and what we are about to see, Lombardi wasn't a very nice guy. It's hard for us to care about him.

Taking into consideration the biographical essentials while also respecting the very distinct and very loud voice of this idolized member of the pigskin fraternity, Simonson does what he can in ninety-five minutes to reduce the essence of David Maraniss's 500 page book When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi into a respectable, if not especially revelatory, dramatic homage.

Under the direction of Thomas Kail, the most critical portions of Lombardi's life and career are the spine of the play, as conceived in real time and in flashback. They are experienced from the perspective of Michael McCormick (Keith Nobbs) a (fictional) young eager beaver reporter. Obviously awed, slightly insecure but also highly motivated, Michael has been sent by his boss and editor at Look Magazine in 1965 to interview the man who was being lauded and credited for the Green Bay Packers' astonishing winning streak.

It is Nobbs' endearing performance that provides us with reasons to care. To be sure, Michael's determination to prove his worth and also go face to face with the formidably unfriendly Lombardi is also the key to our involvement. Michael doesn't realize at the start that he is about to get more of a story than he bargained for. This is not to say that the flinty performance of Lauria, as the famed Super Bowl trophy winner does not prompt our continued curiosity and interest.

Lauria, who is most famously known for his role as Mr. Arnold on The Wonder Years, and now making his Broadway debut, can certainly be said to be embodying the personality of a man who we soon discover is a tyrannical, stiff-necked, autocrat, an authoritarian bully whose behavior is as intimidating as it is unwaveringly anti-social.

An obviously intelligent man who, while coaching football at night, had also changed the direction of his life in Englewood, New Jersey by going from teaching chemistry and physics to a possible executive position in a bank. With the support of his wife Marie (Judith Light) he would have no qualms about accepting the job as head coach and manager for the Green Bay Packers.

If Lombardi's professional credo could be characterized as my-way-or-no-way, it surely had already defined his private life. It is fortunate for him that he had an adoring wife who knew she was destined to be third in line for his attention, after football and God. Lombardi, a religious man who went to mass every day, is seen fingering a rosary as he consents to talk with Michael.

Light, who gives a welcomingly disarming performance, is consigned to show Marie's flippant New York-y side as she mixes countless martinis and serves as a peace maker when Vince's rants and rages get out-of-hand. She is even shown to have a mothering instinct when it comes to the team's ladies man "golden boy" Paul Tornung (Bill Dawes).

The play, includies a good amount of pertinent exposition and makes it clear that the Lombardi children are out of their life. A son, whom he physically abused, is mentioned and estranged. Lombardi's brother is also mentioned in passing as having nothing to do with Vince, although Marie infers that he lives in San Francisco and when she visits, they go "shopping."

Placing the emphasis on the comical side of Marie offers a refreshing balance to Vince's basically disagreeable nature. It is possible that some of Vince's incorrigible behavior was due to the advancing stomach cancer which shows him on one occasion doubled up with pain.

While winning five championships for the Green Bay Packers over a nine year period is certainly part of Lombardi's legacy, it remains for any good drama about an icon to assume and presume there may be a deeper perhaps a darker side to his personality. Unfortunately the personal and professional conflicts that surface are hardly revelatory or insightful, and never go beyond a one-dimensional phase. The early or off-the-gridiron portion of the drama serves as a pre-game warm-up/set-up for Lombardi's instinctively combative nature, a trait that made him automatically vulnerable to the press, media and fans.

Team coaches like stage directors can sometimes display a hubris that makes it difficult to win the respect and loyalty of the players. For some strange and inexplicable reason, the Lombardi we see in this play takes charge the way that General Patton presumably did with his troops and bullies his team to a series of immortal successes. At the same time, it's a wonder that anyone could stay in a room with him for more than two minutes.

Even for those whose interest in football and its legendary heroes is minimal (yes, there are some of you out there,) Lombardi can be enjoyed simply as the story of a man, and like many men, juggling a career with a family life — although in this instance it is only Marie. One might even say that a provocative play about the back-room negotiations of football could be a healthy and refreshing stretch/departure from traditional Broadway fare. The problem is that Lombardi is not provocative enough. Even a couple of highly incendiary confrontations with players Dave Robinson (Robert Christopher Riley) and Jim Taylor (Chris Sullivan) have a stamp of predictability.

The Circle in the Square is known for its often inhospitable design. Again it is a handicap for set designer David Korins who has a few set pieces, such as a section of a living room, rise out of the floor on a turntable and on occasion rotate so that the audience can see the faces of those seated on the sofa. In one instance, Nobbs literally twists his neck awkwardly in Lauria's direction. The space is otherwise empty except that it serves for virtual grid upon which we get some visuals. Portions of football games are also projected onto two screens that everyone can see.

The play, as produced by Friends of Lombardi (among others) in association with The National Football League, has presumably undergone revisions during the course of its pre-Broadway route. What hasn't been addressed during that time is how to unlock the door to Lombardi's deep-seated motivation let alone his infernal rage, and whether winning to him might somehow have been more than just a game. This we never find out.

By Eric Simonson
Directed by Thomas Kail

Cast: Dan Lauria (Vincent Lombardi), Keith Nobbs (Michael McCormick), Judith Light (Marie Lombardi), Robert Christopher Riley (Dave Robinson), Bill Dawes (Paul Hornung), Chris Sullivan (Jim Taylor)
Scenic Design: David Korins
Costume Design: Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design: Howard Blinkley
Sound Design: Acme Sound Partners
Projection Design: Zachary Borovay
Running Time: 95 minutes no intermission
Circle in the Square Theatre, 50th Street & Broadway
Tickets ($115.00)
Performances: Tuesdays at 7 PM, Wednesday - Saturday at 8 PM, Wed. & Sat. mat at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM
Previews began 09/23/10
Opened 10/21/10
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 10/19/10
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