Lombardi might be the first Broadway production where it’s acceptable to wear a vintage Ray Nitschke football jersey or a cheesehead hat for a night out at the thee-a-ter. Loosely based on David Maraniss’ superb 1999 biography of the iconic Green Bay coach whose name now graces the Super Bowl trophy, Lombardi tells the story of a man as obsessed with his own carefully crafted image as he was with winning.
When a big-city journalist paints an unflattering portrait of the thin-skinned coach, Lombardi invites Michael McCormick, a cub reporter (Keith Nobbs) from now-defunct LOOK Magazine, into his Wisconsin home to help rehabilitate his name. ”Maybe you are the next maker of myths,” he flatters the wide-eyed scribe. Lombardi may be easily parodied, but Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) does more than don thick-rimmed specs and adopt a toothy grin. He barks. He coddles. He rants. He apologizes. Sometimes all in the same conversation. This is a man who can inspire great devotion or great fear, but Lauria’s bombast is tempered by a sadness that makes his character real.
Judith Light (Who’s the Boss) is more than his equal as Lombardi’s long-suffering wife, Marie, who drinks the long, cold winters away, pining for the good old days of Manhattan when every great story ended at Toots Shor’s. The delicate way she cradles her drink and the subtle way the tall actress shrinks her frame at moments of vulnerability hint at a lifetime of deference and self-sacrifice. McCormick’s arrival unleashes a flood of memories, and Marie’s loose lips threaten to deflate her husband’s impervious reputation. Not unlike his character in the Lombardi household, Nobbs slowly grows on the audience. As the play’s narrator, he initially appears to be a storytelling gimmick, but it’s his triangular relationship with the Lombardis that ultimately delivers all the tension. Not so the three Packer players — Paul Hornung (Bill Dawes), Dave Robinson (Robert Christopher Riley), and Jim Taylor (Chris Sullivan) — who remain so distant from the center story line that one wonders why they were selected as characters in the play instead of, say, Bart Starr, Jerry Kramer, or Nitschke.
Like the Packers’ bread-and-butter play — 49 Power Sweep — the drama generates power from its simplicity. Performed on a spare 360-degree circular stage without an intermission, director Thomas Kail’s production makes effective use of vintage football footage and the evocative music that fans will recognize from grainy NFL documentaries. But there is a sitcom flavor to the play’s comic rhythm and well-worn themes, and while the conclusion leaves the question of Lombardi’s true character unanswered, the conflicted narrator himself seems to prod the audience to side with the legend. Of course, Lombardi is not a show to diminish its hero, and with Lauria and Light’s sterling duet, fans can rest assured that their champion’s legacy is secure. B
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