May 21, 2024

Few stories get the heart thumping like a tale of sporting guts ‘n’ glory and for sheer up-from-the-bootstraps brio it’s hard to best Vince Lombardi’s rags to riches triumph with the Green Bay Packers. When the play Lombardi announced it would be closing after a Broadway run of almost eight months at Circle in the Square, I felt a need to give it it’s due. In a season ripe with new American plays – and a fair share of well-regarded imports – this one somehow got unfairly lost in the shuffle. Drawn from the best-selling biography “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi” by David Maraniss, the play shifts back and forth in time over the course of a week in 1965 — five years before Lombardi’s death from colon cancer. Dan Lauria – an eerie stand-in for Lombardi – doesn’t narrate the 90-minute play but he does address the audience as if we are in the locker-room with him. Which means off the bat we’re revved up and inspired by the passionate son of Brooklyn -  not to mention man-crushing enough to secretly harbour thoughts of what it must be like to score the winning touchdown. As Lombardi’s understanding yet conflicted wife, Marie, the estimable Judith Light is superb. She doesn’t so much accept her second-fiddle fate as slowly drink it in, one highball after another. Keith Nobbs has the thankless job of playing the reporter from Look magazine who has come to stay with the Lombardis. He’s the machinery as it were; the entry point for the audience to see Lombardi, the man. Therein lies the trouble: we start the evening as members of Vince’s precious Packers, both supplicants and gods of the stadium. When the play shifts to Vince’s home life it’s a bit of a dramaturgical come down. (Especially in the context of Lombardi, the myth: revered football coach who won the first two Super Bowls alongside an unprecedented sweep of championships in five out of seven seasons.) And yet like any good biopic, it still makes for compulsive watching despite this imbalance.  This is due in no small part to Lauria’s almost Rabelaisian characterization. Lombardi may indulge in a little theatrical hagiography, yet that doesn’t make its successes any less enjoyable. After all, it ultimately has little to do with football and everything to do with summoning the best when you’ve got nothing left to give.

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