The new Broadway show, Lombardi, which opened at Center in the Square on Thursday night, is widely being touted as a play that will get men excited about theater. At the showing I attended this week, there were several audience members clad in green-and-gold Bart Starr jerseys, and veteran NFL punter Sean Landeta participated in a talkback session afterward. This show isn't going to attract your typical theatergoing clientele, to say the least.
Critics, even non-football fans, are understandably disappointed that the play reveals so little about the legendary Packers coach. After all, it's a show geared toward football-crazed, nostalgia-loving men who seek information, revelations, new perspective, and, most of all, inspiration from the coaching idol.
I disagree with those reviewers, however, when they claim that this means the show fails to deliver on its purpose and promise. Those looking for a biography of the coach best stick to David Maraniss's When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, the book on which this play is based. For a different look into the man's private life and soul, this 95-minute version does have its highlights.
Playwright Eric Simonson doesn't ask much from Lombardi (played by Dan Lauria) outside of running practices and thinking about how to match up with the Chicago Bears. Lombardi is so focused on the game of football that we rarely see his private side. What's so striking about that is how much of the play is set in his home, the main location staged in the "Theater in the Round" space.
What we do learn about Lombardi comes largely through his wife, Marie, played by Judith Light, who allows the pursuit and probing into the man beneath the iconic trench coat. Marie is more than a supportive wife who endures great sacrifice for the sake of her husband's happiness. Thanks to Light's wonderful acting and dry delivery, Marie wins over the audience and convinced them to forgive her husband's shortcomings. Accept the man for who he is -- that's what she's always done.
We witness a rising reporter named Michael McCormick (Keith Nobbs) who's been assigned to write a profile about the Green Bay coach for Look magazine. McCormick struggles through the first few days he's with Lombardi. Lombardi has opened up his home to McCormick for the week, but gaining access and comfort within Lombardi's organization proves to be a real obstacle.
Director Thomas Kail uses this staged narrator as a representative to show just how difficult it could be to crack Lombardi's cryptic nature. Imagine having to cover him on assignment. It's only through a series of flashbacks in the play that we discover what makes Lombardi tick -- his passion, his loyalty, his devotion, his ambition. Through those short memories we begin to comprehend why his wife and his players -- and even eventually his profiler -- stand by him.
Those who critique the play for not offering enough about Lombardi or why he was a winner should look a little deeper. This play doesn't try to be a complete overview of the life of the legend; it's an introduction for many and invitation for the rest of us to learn more about him.
At one point in the performance, we learn that Lombardi didn't actually coin that famous line he used about winning being the only thing. It was a troubling fact to accept since it's so well credited to him. But this moment just proved one thing: Rather than give us the real story, it's best to maintain the allure and esteem of the famous football coach in the trench coat standing amid a cloud of Green Bay fog.