The famous football coach Vince Lombardi read recipes to relax. "Sometimes I find a nice glazed ham, and it helps me forget."
The line, from Broadway's "Lombardi," is a surprising morsel − one of few − in Eric Simonson's play about the high priest of the Green Bay Packers, who emerges as a second-string player in his own bio. The story is told from the perspective of a fictional reporter, Michael McCormick (Keith Nobbs), who spends a week with Lombardi (Dan Lauria) and his lonely, long-suffering wife, Marie (Judith Light), in Wisconsin. It's 1965, just before the Packers began their record streak of three NFL championships.
"I want to know what makes you win," says the journalist, who eventually learns that his editor at Look magazine expects a puff piece from him to offset a damning profile in Esquire.
Drawn in part from "When Pride Still Mattered," David Maraniss' warts-and-all biography,
the play reveals Lombardi in flashes — his brief flirtation with banking, his inspirational speeches, his failings as a family man, his devout Catholicism (he clutches rosary beads), his devastating colon cancer (he downs Pepto-Bismol) and his rigid control over players.
Scenes on the field reveal a coach who's tough but tolerant,a flawed man who wants perfection. That image will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of Lombardi's career − and that's the problem.
Produced in league with the NFL, "Lombardi" is more like a 90-minute tribute than a full-contact drama. You'd likely get the same result if the Church of Scientology presented a play called "Hubbard." The lone conflict spins around whether McCormick will whitewash his story. Who cares?
Lauria, best known as the dad on "The Wonder Years," looks his part, and brings Lou Grant-style gruffness.
Light, best known as the mom on "Who's the Boss?," lends quiet grace as Marie, a football widow with a thick Joisey accent, a searching gaze and a firm grip on her highballs. Nobbs is earnest as the writer,
Though many scenes are static, director Thomas Kail ("In the Heights") scores points with his audience-friendly staging for this in-the-round theater. The production's touchdown comes when Lombardi drills the Pack on the power sweep, the play that helped make them unbeatable. As X's and O's rush across the bare stage and give way to images of players in green and gold, the play at last comes to life. It's the sort of winning moment Lombardi would expect — and that this show needs more of.
Considering how obsessed we are with football, it’s downright crazy that theater doesn’t tackle it more. This may go back to high school, when drama-club members split from jocks. At the same time, you’d think the stage could make good use of the game’s larger-than-life characters and brutal skirmishes, no?
Eric Simonson’s new, deferential “Lombardi” — likely the first Broadway show to ever get marketing support from the NFL — certainly has plenty of the first, but not enough of the second.
The show looks back in wonder at the famed Green Bay Packers coach, but curiously lacks momentum.
The format is partly to blame: Despite a couple of brief flashbacks, this isn’t so much a bioplay as a snapshot of Lombardi (Dan Lauria, of TV’s “The Wonder Years”) in 1965, when he was at the peak of his powers.
The occasion is a visit by a football-savant journalist, Michael McCormick (Keith Nobbs), who interviews the main man, his stoic wife, Marie (Judith Light), and three iconic Packers. This allows us to see glimpses of Lombardi on and off the field — gruffly loving with Marie, lovingly gruff with the athletes.
While McCormick is a made-up character, the rest of the show, based on David Maraniss’ acclaimed bio “When Pride Still Mattered,” is a feast of quotable quips and authentic references. Granted, the explanation of the Power Sweep went over my head — I’m a soccer fan — but you could feel excited recognition coursing through the audience. The theater’s lobby also includes memorabilia displays.
Lauria, bellowing with authority, holds our attention even as he constantly shuffles sideways to accommodate the Circle in the Square’s in-the-round configuration; director Thomas Kail (“In the Heights”) makes the best of this awkward set-up.
Yet it’s Light who rules the stage, her Marie the sardonic cool to Vince’s volcanic hot. A cocktail glass permanently attached to her hand, hair shellacked into submission, the actress reveals to us an isolated woman, bored to death in the small city she rules by default.
Lombardi was idolized by players and fans for his tough-love approach. His reputation lives on, bolstered by his real accomplishments on the field and maybe even more by his inspirational speeches — he’s basically Elizabeth Gilbert for guys. It would have been good to spice up the play with some plays.
Granted, the man has a lot to do. Like instilling professionalism, heart and fierce dedication in a frozen winter field full of young men. Like transforming a losing football team into a winning one in the span of a single season. And then leading that team to a series of history-making championships, including the first two Super Bowl titles.
But is it too much to ask of Vince Lombardi that he take charge of his own play?
“Lombardi,” a biographical drama by Eric Simonson that opened on Broadway Thursday night at the Circle in the Square theater, seems to depend heavily on a playbook that emphasizes the importance of team effort. In examining the life of the title character, played with pugnacious energy by Dan Lauria (“The Wonder Years”), this workmanlike drama often keeps him offstage for long stretches, almost relegating Lombardi to a supporting role in his own story.
Perhaps this is meant as a tribute to Lombardi’s own exhortations on collective effort. Still it is hard to imagine that a man enshrined in sports history for his obsession with winning would be happy to be stuck on the sidelines for such a sizable portion of this drama-deficient gloss on his career.
The elusiveness of the central character, the renowned head coach of the Green Bay Packers from 1959 to 1967, may be partly intentional, oddly enough. Based on the Lombardi biography “When Pride Still Mattered” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Maraniss, the play is inspired by an incident related in that book, in which a journalist attempting to profile Lombardi gave up in frustration after his subject proved unresponsive and recalcitrant. Michael McCormick (the fine Keith Nobbs), Mr. Simonson’s fictional version of the writer, is a cub reporter for Look magazine on his first big assignment. Michael is welcomed into Lombardi’s home for a weeklong stay by his wife, Marie (Judith Light), gracious but wary after another journalist filed an unflattering cover story about her husband for Esquire.
Suddenly Lombardi himself barrels into the room like a bulldog. Appearing to welcome the chance to set the record straight, he is soon dispensing quotable advice about striving for perfection and playing with heart. Then he stops cold, turning on Michael as on a rookie who’d flubbed a basic play.
“All that was off the record,” he snarls, establishing a pattern of instability that will continue in the days Michael spends chasing his distracted subject around the field in the prelude to Sunday, the climax of the football man’s (and football fan’s) week.
And so Michael passes much of his time taking notes over cocktails with Marie, played with an acerbic, dry-vermouth wit by Ms. Light. (The “Mad Men”-era costumes, by Paul Tazewell, look great on everybody.) From Marie we learn of Lombardi’s early struggles, dramatized in a suspense-free flashback during which he fumes in frustration at the absence of offers to lead a pro team after his many winning seasons in other coaching jobs.
Several players from the 1960s Packers are also on hand to offer their insights: Paul Hornung (Bill Dawes), whose fondness for partying antagonizes the coach, with his obsessive emphasis on the importance of discipline; Dave Robinson (Robert Christopher Riley), who relates how Lombardi demanded that his black players be treated with respect; and Jim Taylor (Chris Sullivan), whose insistence on using an agent for the next year’s negotiations inspires a display of Lombardi’s ferocious temper followed by expressions of paternal affection.
Lombardi himself scurries on and off, brow furrowed as he chews over a new play, or ears jetting steam as he boils over at a player’s lack of will or sloppy execution. He gives stern inspirational speeches illustrating his celebrated reverence for pride and his almost maniacal need to succeed. (The play does take time to debunk his authorship of one famous quote: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”) Football aficionados may take nostalgic pleasure in a scene in which the coach introduces the play for which the Packers of the Lombardi era are best known: the power sweep.
But most of what we learn about Lombardi — and nothing here will be news to the knowledgeable — comes from Marie or the stats-obsessed Michael or the players, in other words secondhand. And what neither the intrepid Michael nor Mr. Simonson manages to discover is a shapely dramatic arc for the play, which mostly takes place during the 1965 season, culminating in the first of Lombardi’s record-setting three N.F.L. championships in a row. (It doesn’t help that this climactic victory has to be related by Michael in a play-by-play accompanying a video.)
The director, Thomas Kail (“In the Heights”), manages traffic effectively, but the play’s scattered structure and lack of a strong focus on its central character deprive it of forward momentum. Mr. Lauria, who bears a passable resemblance to Lombardi, supplies jolts of energy when he can, lacing the pep talks with gusto or stalking the living room with broody irritability, Pepto-Bismol in hand, when problems on the field arise. (The in-the-round set, by David Korins, subtly suggests the shape of a football stadium.) What no actor could provide is the compelling emotional or psychological substance that’s absent from the writing.
Great success, even in a field as popular and exciting as professional sports, does not guarantee that a man’s life will be a worthy subject for dramatic exploration. If Lombardi’s experience was darkened by any great internal struggles or marked by any extraordinary personal challenges, they are not illuminated in “Lombardi.”
Single-minded dedication can be instrumental in rising to the top of almost any field, not just the football field. But it’s not necessarily a rewarding quality in a dramatic hero. Had a certain Danish prince heeded Lombardi’s stern call to discipline and commitment, for instance, “Hamlet” would be a very dull play indeed. A short one too.
The late, legendary pro football coach Vince Lombardi is credited with coining several catchy aphorisms. But in Eric Simonson's Lombardi (* * ½ out of four), which opened Thursday at Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre, we learn that one of the most famous actually predates him.
In a scene toward the end, a young reporter who has traveled to Wisconsin to profile Lombardi in 1965, during one of his numerous championship seasons with the Green Bay Packers, reveals that one supposed Lombardi line — "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" — was actually uttered in a movie first. And not even by the film's leading man, but by a very young supporting actress.
That's about as close to a revelation as you'll get here. Based on the David Maraniss biography When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi and produced in association with the NFL, Lombardi is docudrama at its most predictable and mechanically digestible. With a screen over the stage occasionally flashing footage of some of the Packers' winning moves, you may even feel like you're watching some halftime behind-the-game profile.
Fortunately, director Thomas Kail and his cast don't pretend that this is anything more than a well-intended diversion, and they serve that diversion with spirited professionalism. In the title role, The Wonder Years alum Dan Lauria can seem a little overheated; a couple of his faster, louder rants verge on the unintelligible. But he captures the unvarnished grit that inspired awe and affection in players and fans alike, and manages the character's too-obvious soft side with grace.
Keith Nobbs brings less nuance to the reporter, but consider the part he's saddled with: a pre-cultural revolution journo-geek straight out of central casting, quick-talking and precocious but hopelessly square. He also serves as the play's narrator, embellishing the action with pithy observations about his job and our hero, such as, "I never forgot him. Hell, who could?"
Judith Light has a similarly thankless task as Marie, Lombardi's faithful but feisty wife — another unimaginative variation on a familiar type — but she brings a sturdy, likable presence to the role. And as various Packers, Bill Dawes, Chris Sullivan and Robert Christopher Riley convey the easy physicality of professional athletes and their sometimes strained rapport with both the nosy journalist and their demanding boss.
Lombardi liked to say that while perfection isn't attainable, in chasing it we can catch excellence. Lombardi may aspire to and achieve something less, but there are worse ways to spend 95 minutes.
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.
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.
The question in the minds of just about everybody who's written about Eric Simonson's "Lombardi" to date is this: Who's going to go see a play about a football coach who died 40 years ago? If memory serves, the last sportsthemed play to do really well on Broadway was Richard Greenberg's "Take Me Out," whose protagonist, a center fielder, is not only gay but biracial to boot. Somehow I doubt there's much of an overlap between the audience for "Take Me Out" and the target market for "Lombardi," whose title character, the Jesuit-schooled, fanatically competitive Vince Lombardi, was one of the straightest arrows ever to come out of the quiver (though he had a gay brother and was by all accounts tolerant of closeted football players). All this notwithstanding, the National Football League has put its marketing muscle behind "Lombardi" in return for a piece of the action, presumably operating on the assumption that there are plenty of men out there who don't usually go to Broadway shows (OK,
maybe they liked "Jersey Boys") but might be willing to make an exception for this one.
And why should you care? Because instead of cranking out a "Give 'Em Hell, Harry"-type exercise in feel-good historical hagiography, Mr. Simonson has given us an extremely wellcrafted piece of intelligent middlebrow theater, a regular-guy equivalent of "Frost/Nixon." Such plays rarely make it to Broadway nowadays—the last one I saw there was "A Steady Rain," Keith Huff's two-man play about a pair of crooked Chicago cops—and this one, like "A Steady Rain" before it, is both tasty and filling. I know nothing about football and less about the Green Bay Packers, but "Lombardi" held my attention from start to finish, and when it was over, I went home feeling properly entertained.
If you don't happen to be a football fan of a certain age, suffice it to say that Mr. Lombardi (Dan Lauria) was the man who is famously (and, it seems, wrongly) credited with having said "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." He took a provincial football team with a pathetic record and turned it into one of professional football's all-time powerhouses, and he appears to have done so largely by the force of his snarly, demanding personality. He was a one-man version of the good-cop-bad-cop routine, the kind of person who could chew you out at noon and slap you on the back at 12:05—except that it took a lot longer than five minutes for the toothmarks to heal.
Mr. Lauria, whom TV viewers will remember from "The Wonder Years," knows a dream part when he sees one, and makes the most of this one. He plays Mr. Lombardi like a warmer but comparably tough version of George C. Scott's Patton, and lurking beneath the buzzsaw bluster of his win-or-else tirades is a stealthy note of Pattonesque desperation, the fear that he'll blow his last chance to make it as a head coach. Indeed, I was startled by the cinder-dark passion with which Mr. Lauria assures Keith Nobbs, the geeky reporter-interlocutor who narrates "Lombardi," that he'd "just as soon die" as watch the Packers slip back into second place. I believed it, and so will you.
Judith Light, another familiar face from the sitcom world, plays Marie, Mr. Lombardi's hammer-tongued, harddrinking wife. While there's nothing subtle about her tough-gal-from-Jersey characterization, it is fully and
formidably realized, and I was struck by how adroitly she and Mr. Lauria suggested the stresses and strains of a difficult but loving marriage. Watching them onstage, I felt as though they'd been together for a long, long time—and had spent most of it yelling at one another. Mr. Nobbs does well in an ungrateful part, and Bill Dawes, Robert Christopher Riley and Chris Sullivan are all outstanding as Paul Hornung, Dave Robinson and Jim Taylor, three of Mr. Lombardi's real-life players.
"Lombardi" is being performed in the round at Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre, which is a notoriously difficult space to utilize effectively. Thomas Kail, who directed "In the Heights," has used it well—I felt in touch with the action at all times—and David Korins's décor evokes the play's mid-'60s setting with discreet precision. (The Holiday Inn-style furniture in the Lombardis' living room is just right.) Howell Binkley's lighting adds pleasing touches of depth and complexity to the playing space, and Zachary Borovay's digital projections never get in the actors' way.
For all the strength of his collaborators, though, this is Mr. Simonson's show, and despite occasional snippets of TV-movie overemphasis, he rises to the occasion. I'd never have expected a member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company to take so passionate an interest in Vince Lombardi, but that probably says more about me than it does about Mr. Simonson, who remarked in a recent interview with Broadway.com that he's "always been interested in bringing theater to a cross-section of the public." When I read those words, I thought of my brother, a regular guy from a small Missouri town whom I've taken to two carefully chosen plays in the past five years, a Kennedy Center revival of "Mister Roberts" and a blood-and-thunder "Hamlet" in Orlando, Fla., both of which he loved. If he were to show up on my doorstep tomorrow, I'd take him to "Lombardi" without a moment's hesitation. That's a big part of what makes this play so noteworthy: It reaches out without talking down.