Baseball is America’s pastime, but football is America’s obsession. The National Football League amalgamates the combat of Roman gladiatorial games with the dramaturgy of a Greek tragedy, all played out in front of hordes of screaming fans in a huge amphitheater. From September to February, Sunday belongs to the pigskin and its disciples. Vittles that are served at a Superbowl or tailgate party can easily eclipse a Thanksgiving turkey dinner. Nothing unites families around a television like football, and fantasy football can create virtual warfare at the jobsite.
The NFL, originally named the American Professional Football Association, has spawned many titans and gods since its inception in 1920, but of all the immortal figures that have been a part of the NFL’s history, none is as legendary as Vince Lombardi. And finally all the theatrics of football’s greatest coach have been brought to Broadway in Lombardi. Vince Lombardi was Brooklyn born, Bronx made and had the attitude of a winner wired in his DNA. Raised in the Sheepshead Bay area in Brooklyn, Lombardi began his lifelong journey with football at Fordham University after accepting a scholarship and becoming part of the famous Seven Blocks of Granite, the nickname given to team’s offensive line. He is most well known for being the head coach of the Green Bay Packers, but he was also the assistant coach and head coach for St. Cecilia High School in Englewood New Jersey, assistant coach for West Point and the New York Giants and head coach for the Washington Redskins.
Based on the book When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss, Lombardi mainly takes place during a one week period in December 1965 as Vince Lombardi and his Packers pursue another championship (Lombardi had lead the Packers to a championship in 1961 and 1962 but had not been to the big show in two years). Look Magazine reporter Michael McCormick goes to cheese-head country and stays with the Vince and his wife Marie observing Vince at home and on the field with his family, which includes his wife and his players, in the hopes of returning to Manhattan and writing a breakout article that will finally showcase his abilities.
Playwright Eric Simonson crafts a beautifully poignant script and an excellent testimonial to a great man. Vincent Lombardi’s love and passion for winning, football and his family are well represented. Most football novices know the legend of Vince Lombardi and his single-minded drive to succeed, but the play also provides the audience with a sense of what Lombardi was like at home. Yes, he was a monolithic figure that ruled with a steel fist and iron shooting from his larynx, but through his harsh language the audience sees and feels the love and passion that made him equally flawed and brilliant. Vince Lombardi not only wanted those he loved to be the best, he desired to be the best for them.
The audience bears witness, watching him interact with his players –pushing and praising all from the same heartfelt place. But I believe Lombardi’s “push and praise” attitude is best represented in the relationship he develops with the young reporter. During the play the audience discovers that Vince knew McCormick’s father, who was an editor for a paper in New Jersey. Absent from the production are Vince’s children. As the week progresses, Michael has trouble following Lombardi’s rules as well as authoring an uncompromising story that will surely land him in peril with his editor and Lombardi. The tension, love and acceptance that a father and son experience as the son struggles to find his voice in the world is impressively explored through the bond between Vince and Michael. For one week they provided each other with the stand-in each needed to heal past hostilities each may have had for their family member, and gives audience members a possible peek into the mind of Vince Lombardi the father. The fallible side Lombardi is displayed when the play briefly goes back in time to New Jersey. Vince contemplates the idea of leaving football for a bank job, and shows even an individual whose destiny is clearly mapped out can sometime wrestle with doubt. More obvious, is the stomach pain that pops up and rears its head during the production – a tell-tale sign of shadows to come.
Lombardi is as fascinating to watch as Brett Favre bomb to Randy Moss in the end zone during a Monday Night game, only this show is played with no time outs. There is definitely a certain mana permeating in the Circle in the Square Theatre that the cast absorbed and used to perform masterful portrayals of their characters. Dan Lauria, best known as the dad from The Wonder Years, is truly exceptional as Vince Lombardi. The devotion he gives to his performance is evident through each growl and command. I could wax poetic for another paragraph about the authenticity of his depiction, but NFL legend Floyd Little, who was in the audience the night I attended, provided the confirmation that Lauria scored a touchdown. During the brief Q&A after the show, Little stated he thought he was watching Vince, a compliment sure to be uttered several times over as other members of the NFL see the show. Judith Light is simply a joy to watch. As Marie Lombardi she has all the great one-liners and she delivers each time. She and Lauria are the heart and soul of this show, their banter is energizing and intruiging to watch. One of the most hilarious points in the show is when Marie breaks out an atlas to try to find out where Green Bay is. Keith Nobbs portrayl of eager reporter Michael McCormick is a refreshing departure from the sell your soul for the exclusive approach in which journalists is sometimes depicted. His exchanges with Lauria are some of the best in the show. Bill Dawes, Robert Christopher Riley and Chris Sullivan round out the cast as the devil-may-care Paul Hornung, hardworking Dave Robinson and non-talkative Jim Taylor, with each of these Packers, the audience views another side of Vincent Lombardi the coach, slightly adapting his no-nonsense methodology to deal with each of the players.
Like Vincent Lombardi’s Packers, this cast works like a well-oiled machine and like the championships Green Bay garnered for their efforts I am sure there will be nominations and awards in Lombardi’s destiny. Another reason why this show will be successful is due to the support of the other star of this production, the NFL. During the Q&A the actors expressed how the league and the players have assisted with this production. In fact, the audience walks into a shrine with Lombardi memorabilia and photos littering every inch of the lobby. Adding to the experience is The Circle in the Square Theatre itself. The open stage of the auditorium is similar to a football field and provides a 4-D theatre experience. You do not have to know what a nickel defense or west coast offense is to see this play. The love of football is not necessary. This play crosses over gender, chronological and ethnic lines because at its heart it is a great story. This production is filled with raw emotion and hits harder than a 250 pound blitzing linebacker. Well worthy of the man who exemplified the will to win, Lombardi succeeds in glorious fashion.