Review of the January 16 matinee performance. At the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway, New York City. 90 minutes, no intermission. Starring Dan Lauria, Judith Light and Michael McCormick. A new American play by Eric Simonson, based upon the book When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss. Directed by Thomas Kail.
For some reason, ever since it was announced, I have been interested in seeing Lombardi the new play about football's most legendary coach, Vince Lombardi. I say "for some reason" because I rarely manage to get to any play, let alone one about a topic so foreign to me as football is. But there was just something about the press releases and the logo and ads that caught my eye. Maybe the initial draw for me, like for so many others for other shows, was its cast. I grew up - in my most awkward and ugly adolescent years! - under the pseudo-parenting of both Dan Lauria and Judith Light, whose shows, The Wonder Years and Who's the Boss? were staples in my house. Two half hours a week that we all agreed on and actually watched as a family. So maybe it was nostalgia. Or maybe it was the phone call from my dad, who, God bless him, is really trying to understand my corner of the world all these years later. "Jeffy! Guess what! There's gonna be a Broadway show put on by the National Football League about one of my heroes, Vince Lombardi! You gotta see it and tell me everything!" Yes, when Broadway makes SportsCenter, the news is huge in my family, warranting a beyond the once a week call from Florida to Vermont! Then, too, it might just be that even though I know next to nothing about football, and even I knew the name Lombardi, that I figured there must be something to this legendary man's life that warrants a Broadway play. In truth, it was all of these things. And I am a better person for having invested my time and money to explore the unknown.
I could write an entire blog - and I will, tomorrow, actually - about the audience I attended with. And the completely in the round configuration of the Circle in the Square Theatre afforded me a continual view of my fellow patrons. But suffice it to say, for now, that sharing this performance of Eric Simonson's wonderfully constructed character study, with this particular group added much to the experience.
I can't imagine a better space for this play than the Circle in the Square, where the stage is football field shaped, the seating is stadium style and the entire space is rung around by lights that are configured like stadium night lights. Special recognition is due to designers Howell Binkley (lighting design), Zachary Borovay (projection design), David Korins (scenic design) and Paul Tazewell (costume design), whose work allows for smooth transitions between settings and time. Binkely and Borovay in particular do Tony calibre work as whole sequences of the play take us back in forth in time and locale with just a shift in lights or a well placed spotlight; the projections allow us to see what Lombardi sees - sometimes in action reels projected around the walls of the theatre, other times directly on the "field" itself, the bare stage, as we watch the gridiron warriors (thanks, dad, for that cool synonym!) execute the actual plays that the actors had just discussed.
Of course, all of the best design and acting in the world would be for naught if the material and direction weren't top notch. Eric Simonson's play is tight, frills-free, and extremely easy to follow, even as we go back and forth in time. Frill-free, however, does not mean that it is without depth and character. No, just the opposite, in fact. These are complex people driven by a wide range of goals, but all for a common purpose - love of the game and of the man who leads them. The lack of artifice and over-dramatic theatrical convention really works to this play's advantage: it lets these real life and larger than life characters speak for themselves. And they are revealed to us warts and all. Simonson does not glorify anyone, but shows us their shortcomings with as much gusto as the actions which make them heroes. Under Thomas Kail's equally tight, frill-free, but dynamically theatrical direction, the play is a visual and mental/emotional feast. It moves with the grace and elegance of the perfectly executed playbook, and never lets up. The style of the 60's is germaine to the plot and performance, and Kail executes this simplicity and small cast with the same brilliance that he did with the large cast of the musical In the Heights.
A play about real people, alive and dead, really needs a top notch cast to pay appropriate tribute to the real thing. The cast of Lombardi is uniformly top notch. As Green Bay Packers Paul Hornung, Dave Robinson, and Jim Taylor, Bill Dawes, Robert Chrisptoher Riley and Chris Sullivan, respectively, represent the variety of men who played professional football back when you played for honor, the team and the coach, not for endorsements, million dollar contracts or even a Super Bowl ring. These men played rough, took no prisoners and played hard sick or injured. And they loved, hated and always respected their leader. Today, Vince Lombardi's methods would have cost him a fortune in NFL fines, I'm sure. Which is shame, because I bet football today would be a lot better with more men who played like these guys, led by a tyrant like him. Dawes plays the all-American smart jock extremely well. Athletic and sure of himself, his charming smile no doubt got the real Hornung far, and Dawes really nails the complexity of a man really of two worlds - charismatic intelligence and sheer athletic ability. Riley represents the African-American presence in an all-American game during a time when "all-American" didn't mean all Americans were welcome. Riley plays Dave Robinson with a grace and dignity that is devoid of any stereotype. His character and the actor playing him allows his actions and leadership speak for itself; the man is a true role model. And finally, Sullivan, as Jim Taylor, represents that segment of the athletic world that one might refer to as a "dumb jock" or "meat." And Sullivan nails that vacant, mean look of a guy whose sole purpose in life is to tackle, charge and do whatever is necessary to score. But he also gives us a very well-rounded portrayal of a man who is more aware of his surroundings that anyone else around him gives him credit for. One of the most explosive and reveting sequences of the show is a confrontation between Lombardi and Taylor, who goes to the coach to finally complain that he has had enough bad and unfair treatment. It is the moment when coach realizes player isn't talking about the game or the coach, but rather the inequitable bargaining conditions between the older and newer players, that the entire show reaches an unexpected height, and Sullivan unleashes his considerable acting talents. In that moment we realize that no man can be labelled as just one thing.
The catalyst/narrator role is perhaps the most conventionally theatrical devices of the play. And Keith Nobbs as Michael McCormick plays the theatrical convention well, addressing the audience with astuteness and a twinkle in his eye. But it is his genuine "aw shucks" demeanor that wins over the other characters and audience alike. The well-written role, also allows Nobbs a remarkable opportunity to show a wide range, and Nobbs is more than up to that challenge. It also speaks volumes about the actor that he is believable both when he reveres and hates his subject matter, making their scenes of extreme tension, not to mention volume, a much more equal fight than one would expect. As played here, I would want BOTH McCormick and Lombardi in my corner when it came right down to it.
It has been decades (!) since Judith Light has been on a Broadway stage, and boy, was it worth the wait! Her portrayal of Marie Lombardi is so effortless that it goes down, rough edges, vim and vigor and all, like a smooth martini. And apt comparison on my part, because Marie is pretty much with drink in hand throughout the performance. Ms. Light could easily have slipped into stereotype - the drunk Jersey housewife - but is clearly in love with her real life counterpart to the point that she wants each and every moment to ring true. Tough as nails on the outside, it is when the actress lets the vulnerability slip out just enough to shed a tear or an angry word, that you see just how amazing this performance is. Watching the toll of years in a hard marriage and years of hard drinking is as heartbreaking as it is easy to see in Light's masterful physicality. Each step she takes is an amazing combination of bone weariness, years of covering up a drunken binge, and a sure defiance that allows her to be her own woman free from the shadow of her formidable husband. A Tony nomination is due for this exquisitely fiercely complex yet gently simple performance.
No matter how much you know, like or hate about football, Lombardi is a play you should see. It is about a flawed man who recognizes his flaws and limitations, and still demands (and usually gets) perfection from everyone in his life. Yes, he was mean and cruel. And yes, his methods were harsh, but the love and respect of his players and beloved wife, and ultimately the audience of the play, surely prove that humans crave respect, leadership and passion for whatever they do, be it on a football field, at a desk in a cubicle, or in your own home. Lombardi, the man, was all of this and more. Lombardi, the play, touches on the universality of respect for greatness.
(Photos by Joan Marcus.)
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