Review by Christopher Moore, Broadway Magazine
Football is a tough sport, and the new Broadway production of Lombardi is a tough play. With nominal sponsorship from the NFL, the production seeks to offer both an honest portrait of a complex leader while maintaining the sheen on the winning Lombardi legend. For those of you not in Osh Kosh, Vincent Lombardi was the legendary football coach of the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s. He led the team to victories in the first two Super Bowls, and the trophy given to modern winners of the Super Bowl is named for Coach Lombardi.
Now, in a new Broadway play, writer Eric Simonson delivers a portrait of Lombardi by focusing on one particular week in the champion’s life. Simonson invents the character of a young New York sports writer who is in Green Bay to cover Lombardi. The reporter asks questions and helps move the story forward. In the play, the coach has recently been the victim of a hatchet job by a writer from Esquire that has incensed the Coach and everyone around him. The new writer is there to set the record straight. It is unclear if the Esquire article is fact or fiction, but it may have made for a more compelling play if Simonson had turned his attention to that encounter rather than this one featuring a reporter who worships the coach.
As the play stands, the writer from Look magazine is a life-long Lombardi fan who can spout statistics and even becomes one with the team, though in the end struggles to find some objectivity we are told. The writer-character sums up Lombardi as the most imperfect “perfect” man he had ever known. One wishes there had been less ‘perfect’ and more’ imperfect.’
The success of Lombardi the play is in its ability to subtly touch on the darker side of the winning story. We learn that Lombardi showed the back of his hand to his estranged son quite often, the coach and his wife drink quite a bit, and it is suggested that Lombardi may not even have had the best interest of his players at heart when it came to the business side of the sport (the coach was also the General Manager). Nothing is more uninteresting than perfection, and the faint hints to a darker side of this heroic portrait are fascinating. Simonson errs on the side of hero worship in his script, but he does suggest fuller dimensions to the story in a crafty way.
Another pleasure of the production is that the show captures a time when the NFL was not the enterprise it has become—it seems almost quaint. Players and fans and coaches were all fairly accessible, coaches could work at a bank in the off-season, and the idea of having an agent negotiate a contract on behalf of a player could be considered outrageous. In the lobby of the Circle-In-The-Square theatre, among the giant portraits of the legends there are real jerseys from the actual 1960s players and even the genuine players’ bench from Lombardi’s last game. Looking at those items, and seeing the raw footage of actual games played in the freezing gray of winter, one is reminded of the human scale of the sport that has become gargantuan.
Simonson may have delivered the playbook, but it is they players on the stage who make this show one of the winningest sports plays ever produced. Dan Lauria as Vincent Lombardi is almost too good as the coach. He barks, he purrs, he drinks, he coaches; Lauria gives Vincent Lombardi a Shakespearean dimension, the coach is genuinely a man haunted and obsessed. Though the actor mutes the violence that is inherent in the story, for the most part it is an uncanny portrayal that fascinates. While it would be a better play if Lombardi were a less likeable character, Lauria does his level best to give a balance rendering of an imbalanced mercurial figure.
Perhaps the richest performance of the evening belongs to Judith Light as Mrs. Lombardi. With a steady flow of cocktails, Ms. Light is unswerving in her ability to capture a conflicted woman who has made sacrifices and reaped rewards. A football widow, Ms. Light finds the human pulse and passion of this woman and never hits a false note. Together with Lauria, they are a natural couple, and their performances are exceptional. The rest of the cast does a solid job, but the characters never get beyond uncomplicated stereotypes: the earnest reporter, the bad boy athlete, the bumpkin. The actors do a remarkable job, but the script doesn’t give them much of an arc to travel.
That said, the subject of Lombardi is Lombardi, and the production delivers an intriguing look inside the life and mind of a tenacious spirit who only wanted to win…and managed to win a lot. Pick your favorite sports cliché and insert it here—Lombardi on Broadway is a winner.