We close our tribute to the life and legacy of Vince Lombardi with a review of the Broadway play about his life. And few people are more qualified to review that play than my good buddy Aaron Nagler -- not only is Aaron a New York resident with theater experience, he also runs Cheesehead TV, the finest online gathering place for those interested in hardcore Green Bay Packers analysis. Here, with our sincere thanks, is Aaron's take on the "Lombardi" experience.
My earliest memory in life involves the Green Bay Packers. When I was three years old, my grandfather took me to Lambeau Field for a game against the Detroit Lions. All throughout my childhood, he regaled me with stories of Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr, Jim Taylor and all the other Packer greats who made the 1960's so thrilling for so many Packer fans both in Wisconsin and around the country.
I found myself thinking quite a bit about my grandfather as I watched "Lombardi", the firecracker of a play that opened Thursday night on Broadway here in New York City. I think he would have been in awe of what I saw transpire on stage. Vince and Marie Lombardi have taken up residence at Circle in the Square. These are not imitations. These are not impersonations. Dan Lauria and Judith Light are Vince and Marie. More than just expert actors, Lauria and Light reveal one of the most honest relationships you'll see anywhere on Broadway. The supporting roles, even finely played ones like Keith Nobbs' turn as a fictional journalist from Look magazine named Michael McCormick (loosely based on W. C. Heinz), fade from memory and leave Vince and Marie, and their tough but resilient relationship, burned into the memory. Aptly directed by Broadway veteran Tommy Kail, the production flows as well as can be expected within its "in the round" confines. What really makes the staging work though is David Korins's sparse set design. It is a work of near-minimalist genius. (I swear my grandparents had that exact same couch...)
I don't expect New York's theatrical press to be kind to this play. Having worked for both Off-Broadway and Broadway theaters, I know exactly what to expect. You see, there is a long list of "Dos" and "Don'ts" when it comes to Broadway, and this play ticks the box on many of the "Don'ts". Don't play in the round. Don't set your play anywhere but the Upper East Side. And for heaven's sake, don't have an unlikable protagonist. (Shocker - Vince is gruff and likes to yell.) These are but a few of the "rules" that "Lombardi" breaks. I don't doubt the likes of John Simon and Charles Isherwood will make the production "pay for their sins", so to speak. I can only hope that "Lombardi" finds an alternative audience to the crowd that rises and falls on the strokes of their pens because "Lombardi" is as entertaining and as moving an experience as you'll find on Broadway this season.
Vince Lombardi was no picnic. That is clear to anyone who has read what might be the greatest sports book ever written, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss. The play has sprung up from the book, and Eric Simonson's script does a commendable job of compressing hundreds of pages worth of Maraniss' prose into three or four lines of dialogue. It's an impressive feat. There are two choices Simonson makes that disappoint me. One is the absence of Bart Starr. David Robinson makes an appearance...and Starr doesn't? The other is the exclusion of Lombardi's children. One of the things Maraniss' book reveals is the tension between Vince Jr. and his famous father, a relationship that could have produced its own two hour drama - perhaps the reason for its exclusion.
The action takes place mainly in two locations - the Lombardi household and the football field, with occasional visits to Lombardi's office or a bar where the players hang out, play pool, and talk about football, life and, of course, Lombardi. Yes, even when Lauria is not on stage, Lombardi hovers over the proceedings. We are always waiting for his next appearance, for his next lesson on the importance of teamwork.
The greatest of these lessons comes during a sequence that sees Lauria take to the chalkboard to diagram out Lombardi's famous power sweep - only the "chalkboard" is projected on the stage floor, the play diagram moving each X and O as Lauria barks out commands for each players responsibility on the play, every one working in concert toward a common goal. Here is where the affiliation with the National Football League, a partner in the production, pays off in spades as we watch actual footage of Lombardi's Packers making the power sweep work. For the uninitiated or novice football fan, it will be an impressive sight. For football die-hards, it will be akin to a religious experience.
But while the football is great, it is nowhere near the best part of the play. That distinction belongs to the relationship between Lauria and Light as Vince and Marie. It can't be overstated. There won't be a night that "Lombardi" plays when several wives don't turn to their husbands and give them a playful "That's just like you!" jab when presented with Lombardi's single-mindedness. There also won't be a night when those same husbands and wives recognize a real married couple of many, many years, a couple who know love in a way that seems to have disappeared in this country of the 50 percent divorce rate.
What Vince and Marie share on the stage at Circle in the Square is unconditional and forgiving of fault - a surprise when you think about how unforgiving Lombardi was. But that complexity is part of what makes the man - and the play named after him - such a fascinating story.