THEATER REVIEW:  ‘Lombardi’ shines on Broadway stage

A college psychology professor distributes a pop quiz to his class.  One question.

“What do you call an individual who is standing up screaming one moment, then sitting down crying the next?”

The classroom of academics is perplexed.  All except one student in the back, who promptly raises his hand and exclaims “football coach”.

The aforementioned witticism is one of many humorous couplets of dialogue from Eric Simonson’s “Lombardi”, and one that is equally synoptic of the Broadway production as a whole.

“Lombardi”, based on David Maraniss’s best-selling biography of NFL coaching icon Vince Lombardi, “When Pride Still Mattered”, is more than simply an hour and a half production about football and the historic accomplishments of the Green Bay Packers.

The play, directed by Thomas Kail, stars Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) as the enigmatic Lombardi and  two-time Emmy-winner Judith Light (Who’s The Boss?, Wit) as the coach’s amiable but sharp-tongued better-half. The story  of the play follows Michael McCormick (Keith Nobbs), a fictional reporter who is sent to Green Bay during the 1965 season to compose a feature story for Look magazine on the secret behind Lombardi’s success, the method to his proverbial (and literal) madness.

Predictably, at first, McCormick’s forays into the Lombardi household and onto the Packer practice field are met with much resistance from Vince and his team.  As the play unfolds, the young reporter develops a strong rapport with Mr. and Mrs. Lombardi and Packer players Jim Taylor (Chris Sullivan), Paul Hornung (Bill Dawes) and Dave Robinson (Robert Christopher Riley).  The past experiences of these players serve as underlying subplots of the story.  The play uses several flashbacks to chronicle Jim Taylor’s contract negotiations, Paul Hornung’s bar-hopping, pied-piper lifestyle, and Robinson’s steadfast quest for Lombardi’s approval.

While tackling the interactions of Lombardi and his players, Simonson’s script more effectively sheds light on the off-field life of the heralded Lombardi, giving audiences a deeper understanding of the manic, capricious, yet benign character of the gridiron luminary.

Lauria is simply brilliant in his portrayal of the protagonist, managing to successfully tiptoe the trapeze wire between Lombardi’s raging lunacy and his compassionate, tough-love, farceur persona.  While some of his maniacal tirades are a bit over-the-top, Lauria effectively captures the heart and soul of Lombardi, a religious Brooklynite with a heart of Packer gold.  Judith Light turns in an equally strong performance in the role of Marie Lombardi, serving as an entertaining level-headed counterpart to her volatile husband.  Mrs. Lombardi’s sarcastic and bewildered exchanges with Vince provide another ongoing humorous subplot to the production.

Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre provides an intimate viewing space for “Lombardi”, which hardly relies on much of a set or special effects.  During moments of game action, projection televisions are used to display footage.  Other than that all of the action of the play is set on the small central stage in the middle of the theater.  The minimalistic production approach and relatively small arena adds a cozy, comfortable element to the play.  The audience feels as if they are actually siphoned within the Lombardi living room for 90 minutes, establishing a strong level of unpretentiousness and personability with the actors.

The immutable Lombardi himself once said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

“Lombardi” while not a perfect production, succeeds on its simplistic strengths and provides an enjoyable Broadway experience for both the theater aficionado and football fan alike.

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