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Posted Nov 1, 2012, 8:34 am
There are winners and losers in football, which is one of its appeals. Life and art are not so starkly black and white. The play “Lombardi,” Arizona Theatre Company's production about legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi, has winning elements, but overall falls short of the usual high standard that ATC has set.
Does that make it a loser? Well, that’s the judgment call on the field, subject to review.
The show’s production values look great from the opening moments when actor Bob Ari rises up from beneath the stage in Lombardi’s familiar fedora and winter overcoat. A simulated scoreboard looms over one side of the stage.
Unfortunately, playwright Eric Simonson’s script has structural problems that no amount of set design or acting can overcome.
Green Bay in autumn, 1965
The play is set mostly in Green Bay during an autumn week in 1965. Lombardi and his wife, Marie, welcome a young reporter, Michael McCormick, into their home to research an in-depth profile of the coach for Look magazine. This subsequently allows the play to roam through Lombardi’s past in flashbacks, as well as allowing exposition with McCormick as narrator. McCormick changes over the course of the play, while Lombardi doesn’t, which undermines the focus of the show’s drama.
McCormick also introduces a sub-plot about journalistic practices that the general public understands even less than the contract restrictions for free agents. People probably care much more about football than about journalism, given that the NFL has made its games and players central to the lives of millions of Americans, while professional journalism is shedding jobs daily without much consternation. In the play, a pivotal moral issue is Lombardi being allowed to read and “correct” McCormick’s article prior to publication. As central as that journalistic ethics, it’s relatively arcane to the general public.
Now, did you notice how annoying that little digression was? It’s just as annoying in the play.
One of the problems…
Brought down by a weak script, the play is as disappointing as losing a home game
One of the problems with “Lombardi” is its reliance on narration rather than interaction. We hear that there was a post-game victory party in the house, but don’t actually get to see Lombardi interact with friends and supporters.
Nor do we meet the Lombardi children. It’s implied that they’re pretty screwed up, having grown up in the shadow of their father’s obsession with football and given his driven-to-success personality. But rather than show those highly dramatic moments, we only get vague allusions from Marie about the relationship between her husband and their children.
Another problem is that the Lombardi character remains two-dimensional despite the valiant efforts of Ari. On the evidence of the play, Vince Lombardi was a cross between Ralph Kramden from the Honeymooners and General George Patton. Sure, he was tough and yelled a lot (a LOT!), but he was a teddy bear in the face of Maria, who understood him far better than he understood himself. We never learn any more about his devotion to Catholicism other than a comment that he went to Mass every day. We never learn the motivation or genesis of his absolute requirement for racial equality in the treatment of his Black players. Too often, the play presents only what Lombardi did, with no clarification or context as to why he did it.
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A lack of self awareness
Beyond the unknown motivations, we also don’t get any feel for his inherent complexity as a human being. The closest we come to understanding any ambiguity is a flashback scene when he got the call for the head coaching position of the Packers, at the time perennial losers. There it’s revealed that he seriously considered leaving football for a career in banking. (Ironically, that he saw banking as an option gives us the show’s biggest insight into Lombardi’s lack of self awareness.) Finally, with Marie’s knowing permission, he returns the call and we can hear the hunger in his voice. But why that hunger existed is never explained.
The play is hermetically sealed and overall fails to evoke the era beyond the playing field. We meet Packer’s star running back Paul Horning, as well as players Dave Robinson and Jim Taylor. But the script is devoid of even a passing mention of, say, the Beatles, President Johnson, Vietnam or even Vatican II, which Lombardi must have had some opinions about. The only milieu anchoring references are the living room furniture, Marie’s outfits and comments about racial equality (Lombardi supported it) and the rights of players to have professional representation in contract negotiations (Lombardi reluctantly allowed it).
Actors and characters
Ari plays the Coach big and unsubtle, suitable for a larger-than-life character. The supporting characters are more nuanced. Deedee Rescher plays Marie marvelously with an unsophisticated, early '60s attitude, a girl from good working-class family in New Jersey who took grief for marrying an Italian. Rescher allows Marie’s character flaws to peek through without allowing her performance to distract from the main subject.
Branton Box nails the athletic confidence of Paul Horning. His self-assured body language speaks volumes about a character whose life was focused on physical excellence in a brutal profession where careers are often short and seldom end well or willingly. William Oliver Watkins plays Dave Robinson, while David Hardie as Jim Taylor gets the only other character arc in the show. Taylor’s tight-lipped silence is initially mistaken for dimness, but just how smart he is comes through in the end.
Nick Mills plays reporter Michael McCormick in a role that often overshadows the play’s main subject, especially as the reporter struggles to figure out Lombardi. An after-hours scene with the players in a bar seemed awkward in all the wrong ways. As the outsider among athletes, the character’s overwhelming command of statistics is supposed to endear him to the players, but Mills delivery seemed much too studied to feel conversational. His narration soliloquies had a smug “I witnessed greatness” tone that did not make him any more endearing.
Director Casey Stangl, in her ATC debut, puts up a fine effort to make “Lombardi” into something more profound than Cheesehead jingoism. But in the end, the show, brought down by a weak script, is as disappointing as losing a home game.