11/11/2010 11:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Stage Door: Personal Enemy, Lombardi

The Red Scare of the 1950s was a searing time in America. If 59E59 Theaters wants to revisit the era's paranoia and repression, it should revive Arthur Miller's The Crucible, an allegory of McCarthyism. By contrast, Personal Enemy, set in this sinister time, is a mess.

The production is part of the theater's usually terrific Brits Off-Broadway series. The seven-person British troupe tackles a play set in 1953 small-town America. The blacklist is a reality; inconclusive or sketchy evidence can be exaggerated, and lives are easily destroyed. It's an important subject, but the writing is stilted and the plot transitions awkward. Further, only three of the performers can sustain an American accent; the missteps are distracting. The equally stilted performances, with a few exceptions, are another problem.

John Osborne, whose breakout work Look Back in Anger came in 1956, is on shakier ground here. Personal Enemy, an early play originally censored by the Lord Chancellor for its homosexual references, isn't helped by the script restoration. A family is mourning their favorite son, killed in the Korean War, while sexual suspicions circle younger son Arnie (Peter Clapp) and his friendship with town librarian Ward Perry (Steven Clarke). Arnie's parents (Karen Lewis, Tony Turner) are meant to be typical of the era, so is the Red baiting and small-minded ignorance trumpeted by sister Caryl (Joanne King).

Sadly, PE never gels. The dialogue is strangely unemotional, given the plot surprises, and the one rational voice, Caryl's husband (a solid Mark Oosterveen), is too little, too late. As Mrs. Slifer, the Polish neighbor, Genevieve Allenbury rings true. Her confusion at the political hysteria gripping the country is equal to the audience's discomfort.

However, Lombardi, a tribute to famed Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, scores. Now at Circle in the Square, football becomes a metaphor for life. Lombardi (an excellent Dan Lauria) is ambitious and tough; he sacrifices all (including his loyal, lonely wife Marie, a wonderful Judith Light) for his winning-is-everything mantra.

The play opens with a stats-obsessed reporter from Look magazine (Keith Nobbs) assigned to cover the demanding, irascible Lombardi. Several of the Packers' star players, Paul Hornung (Bill Dawes), Jim Taylor (Chris Sullivan) and Dave Robinson (Robert Christopher Riley), weigh in on his coaching style. Interestingly, it's left to Marie to give us the back-story, which Light does with sass and humor.

Lombardi was a gridiron philosopher. His belief in teamwork, his demand for excellence and his passion for the game, were legendary. So was his temper and monomania. Lombardi shows us a great man, but a flawed one. From the late Fifties to late Sixties, Vince Lombardi became the miracle worker of professional football; he turned the losing Packers around in a year -- then won three championships in a row, including the first two Super Bowls. A study in leadership, it packs punch.

As Eric Simonson's play, based on the Lombardi bio When Pride Still Mattered makes clear, he simply refused to accept defeat. A devout Catholic, he believed in "freedom through discipline," a Jesuit ideal. That's useful for creating a powerful, cohesive NFL team, but it's not great for dramatic tension. Lombardi doesn't build to a big finish. For a boisterous man, it's a surprisingly quiet production, presenting a well-crafted, economical portrait of a relentless American spirit. "It's not whether you get knocked down, it's whether you get up," he says. Lombardi salutes true grit.