Charles Wantman, winner of the tickets to see the Lombardi, reviews the Broadway play.
When you descend from the 50th Street entrance lobby of the Circle In The Square Theater to the lower lobby for the performance of “Lombardi”, your slow escalator ride takes you past heroic enlargements of Green Bay Packer greats of yesteryear. And as you walk into the theater, you pass by some life-size cardboard cutouts of players from that era. Unfortunately, those cutouts are also a foreshadowing of the dimension of the characters you are about to meet onstage.
Dan Lauria, playing the title role, tries hard to capture the gruffness and grittiness of Lombardi, but he can’t seem to summon the fear and awe his players in real life had for the coach. His outsized effort often ends up as mugging, and the climax of a typical rant frequently concludes with his voice cracking or catching. He’s more likely to be funny than scary. On the other hand, his character is enormously likeable.
Judith Light, as his wife Marie, plays her part broadly and winningly. A hard drinker, Marie mostly matches her husband verbal blow for blow, and projects a studied ennui that amuses, yet doesn’t hint of greater depth. Her haughty affect belies her role as mother figure to some of the players.
The young men of the play, Keith Nobbs as the young reporter from Look Magazine, and Robert Christopher Riley, Bill Dawes, and Chris Sullivan as Packer players Dave Robinson, Paul Hornung, and Jim Taylor provide the greatest interest. Each of them is involved in one way or another in a struggle with Lombardi, and through those struggles we get to understand them and the title character more fully. Their scene together in a pool hall was the highlight of the evening.
Without conflict there is no story, and what’s missing in “Lombardi” is a view of compelling conflicts within the main character or in his life. There are several missed opportunities. It’s clear that Lombardi had a troubled relationship with his son, yet that is glossed over. His marriage with Marie is portrayed more like a sitcom than a real relationship. His colon cancer was causing him pain years before it was diagnosed, and exploring the reasons for his refusal to see a doctor about it might have exposed something about his fears. We know he was driven to win. But we don’t know much about what scared him.
Yet in spite of these defects in the play, you love and admire the man. Lombardi’s monologue at the end of the play on the need to love the players you work with cuts straight to the heart, forcing more than a little effort to hold back a tear. It is here that Lombardi reaches some meaningful truths about life that leave us richer for the experience.