Theatergoers do not need to be football fans to enjoy Eric Simonson’s biodrama Lombardi, now playing at Broadway’s Circle in the Square. In fact, the true joy in the unevenly crafted play, directed with sturdy proficiency by Thomas Kail, is savoring the portrait of a marriage that emerges thanks to Dan Lauria’s turn as the title character, legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, and Judith Light’s sterling performance as his understanding, football-widowed wife, Marie.
Light’s work first sparks the play as Marie welcomes Michael McCormick (an effectively understated Keith Nobbs), a fictional reporter for Look magazine, into the Lombardi home (represented with a few pieces of furniture in David Korins’ spare scenic design). He’s come to Wisconsin to profile the coach, who may be on the cusp of taking the Packers back to a championship after a couple of losing seasons.
As the two chat, Light communicates volumes, not only by deftly serving up the play’s exposition about Lombardi and his history, but in her finely etched performance. Dressed in one of the many chic period ensembles from designer Paul Tazewell, Light moves a bit like a fullback in her heels, and one’s never sure if it’s because of the cocktails she so freely imbibes or because she’s just a New Jersey tomboy at heart. Ultimately, one decides it’s a bit of both and the reason why Marie’s marriage to the volatile Lombardi is so successful. As the play progresses, moving backward and forward through time, Light’s ability to communicate Marie’s love, pride, and slight bitterness through a glance or a small gesture only enriches the play and the performance.
Equally impressive is Lauria’s turn as the man for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named. He imbues the character with such love that his bursts of fierce anger are somehow magnetically charismatic. Lauria is equally adept at allowing a softer little boy-like quality to show, particularly when Lombardi finds himself having to half-apologize for the hurt he’s caused Marie — and others — during one of their shouting matches. And when, after one such loving battle royale, he pats Marie on the rear, the love between the two is almost painfully palpable.
While Simonson’s play is very effective when it’s focused on the Lombardis’ marriage, it falters on other counts. The presence of Michael certainly affords Simonson with a convenient way of providing factual details as narration, but it ultimately feels likes a strained dramaturgical device. So too does an awkwardly staged scene during which Lombardi and Michael share late night confidences in the Lombardi home.
Equally problematic are the scenes featuring three of Lombardi’s players, ones that are designed to perfunctorily dispense information about Lombardi and his coaching style as well as facts about the game itself. Robert Christopher Riley as linebacker Dave Robinson, Chris Sullivan as fullback Jim Taylor, and Bill Dawes as Paul Hornung, a versatile player and also the team’s “bad boy,” deliver ably, but they’re never able to dispel a sense that these moments seem to be underdeveloped and only provide a picture of a demanding and rigorous coach rather than a true great of the gridiron.
Some excellently chosen period video by projection designer Zachary Borovay brings the game itself to life and designer Howell Binkley uses the stadium lights that ring the perimeter of the theater with flair, marvelously underscoring the impact that the game has had on the marriage that’s at the core of the play.