Eric Simonson has written a biography play about legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, based on an occurrence in David Maraniss’ book When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi. What is unexpected is that the play is a lot more about a fictional reporter from Look Magazine by the name of Michael McCormick who stays with Lombardi and his wife to write an article about what makes the winning coach tick. After a disagreeable article came out in Esquire Magazine about Lombardi, he hopes that by inviting this young reporter into his home for a week he will get a counter-article in print. However, McCormick finds Lombardi to be quite elusive and his character is impossible to crack. He gains most of his information from second hand sources––primarily the wife and also from members of the Green Bay Packers, who are reluctant to talk much. So, the play becomes much more about reporter Michael McCormick’s obsession with the Green Bay Packers than revealing the character and life of Vince Lombardi. Lombardi is off stage for long stretches, only to come tromping on to bark orders and put unruly team members (or reporters) in their place. The entire goal of this man is winning and he is single minded about it. He is so fixed on the goal of turning a losing team into a winning team that he loses sleep over it and his health is sacrificed, but these are only minor irritations rather than setbacks, for what happens is what we know going in: the Green Bay Packers become a champion team.
Although the dramatic arc is weak and the title character seems to be only half realized, the 95 minute play is swift and engaging as directed by Thomas Kail and designed for the round by David Korins. Screens drop in to decorate the show with projected montages and the play board is projected as animation on the stage floor to depict the famous “Power Sweep” play. The Circle in the Square Theater naturally replicates the Football arena and so a wonderful atmosphere for this particular story is created. This is a genre of theatre I like to call “The Obsession Play,” where a lead character spends the play obsessing over the topic and showing us why he or she thinks it is so interesting. If done well we are swept up into the obsession a bit and this is definitely the case with LOMBARDI. What is unstatisfying is that McCormick never gets to unlock the secrets of his subject.
Lombardi is played perfectly by Dan Lauria, known to all as the dad on The Wonder Years. Judith Light creates a distinctive character as Marie Lombardi and it is comforting to have this familiar actress hanging about, which is about all she does, though her delightful personality enriches the proceedings. Keith Nobbs is perfectly cast as the reporter, for he looks just like the person as he is described in the lines of the play and he has that particular “New Yorker” delivery that can only come from someone raised in New York as Mr. Nobbs has been. Mr. Nobbs is likable and though he is small of stature, he can hold the audience in a big way, which is imperative since he is essentially the protagonist of the play.
LOMBARDI is a bit light weight for such a big subject and the fans of the sport will walk away learning nothing new about the coach, but it doesn’t take a sports fan to appreciate a good performance and LOMBARDI is that.