nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
October 29, 2010
I find it hard to believe, being an unabashed football fan and former player, that there are those who have no idea who Vincent Lombardi was. A career coach who worked his way up from high school coaching to colleges and finally to the National Football League, Lombardi was the iconic leader of the Green Bay Packers who won 5 NFL championships, including the first two Super Bowls. One week after his untimely death in 1970 at age 57 due to colon cancer, the trophy for the winner of the Super Bowl was named the Vincent Lombardi Trophy. His legacy and coaching ethos is as important to the game of professional football as Knute Rockne is to college football. Though he didn't actually coin the phrase, he embraced and has become intertwined with the saying, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." Okay, so now I've caught up those who were in the dark.
The thing is, however, you needn't know any of the above before attending Lombardi, Eric Simonson's homage to the legendary coach. At the outset your attention is grabbed by the vibrant Vince himself, in a wonderfully dynamic portrayal by Dan Lauria. He speaks to us as if we are his players and darned if we don't want to get up and go tackle someone. Well, maybe not, but it is a fitting opening exhortation that captivates. Then, Simonson introduces his narrator, a fictional sportswriter named Michael McCormick and played by Keith Hobbs with a warm guilelessness that immediately engages. Here we get the conflict for the evening. McCormick has been sent up to Green Bay to write a feature on the great Lombardi, who is in the middle of what would be his breakout season with the Packers in 1965. The question: will Lombardi ever stop enough to give the kid the story he needs?
Not earth-shattering material, perhaps, but this fictional plot is all we really need to keep us hooked, because it is the characters themselves that drive this piece. They are so well drawn and well acted that this slice of life is completely entertaining. Especially with the inimitable Judith Light portraying Vince's wife Marie. Light is simply delightful, providing a solid center of comic irony. When she and Lauria are on stage, we delight in the concomitant viewing of the two characters' love for each other and the two veteran actors' love of the stage.
This is not to diminish the other performances. Bill Dawes is a charming Paul Hornung, the golden boy of the Packers who can sweet talk his way out of any sticky situation. Chris Sullivan is an equally fine Jim Taylor, the big fullback who is not the dumb football player stereotype people think, but a sensitive and astute businessman. Taylor's negotiations with Lombardi provide a nice tangential insight into the emergence of the professional football player in the '60s as a recognized commodity worthy of high pay for a dangerous job. Rounding out the group nicely is Robert Christopher Riley who plays Dave Robinson, the diplomatic moral core of the play, who as the players' union representative fights to strike a balance between players' demands and owners' needs.
The one hundred or so minutes fly by, in clever staging by director Thomas Kail, who has terrific support from the design team of David Korins (set), Paul Tazewell (costumes), Howell Binkley (lights), Acme Sound Partners (sound), and Zak Borovay (projections). The set changes are simple yet magical. The lighting is clever, transforming the theatre's in-the-round seating into a subtle pseudo-stadium. The projections are a marvelous addition, adding to the "you are there' quality of the piece and literally setting in motion a diagram of Lombardi's vaunted power sweep formation—a clever distillation for all to understand.
Perhaps that's the real magic of this piece—it really is for everyone, fan and novice alike. I thoroughly enjoyed this production, but that should be expected as I am an ex-football player who knows what it is like to grind it out in the trenches of the line of scrimmage. Yet my companion, who is neither a fan nor particularly fond of football, equally enjoyed the production. Credit the stellar performances of this ensemble cast, particularly that of Lauria, who triumphs as the embodiment of an icon, plus terrific direction and design. And credit an imaginative playwright who has written a loving tribute to the legend that is Lombardi.