Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi was known not just as one of the sport’s greats, but as a colorful and charismatic character and one his players idolized. Head coach of the Green Bay Packers from 1959 to 1967, he’s brought to crackling life by actor Bart Hansard in the new Lombardi, running at Aurora Theatre through February 9.
Playwright Eric Simonson bases his play on a real encounter the coach had with an eager-beaver journalist. With the 1965 professional football season underway, young reporter Michael McCormick (Chris Moses) gets his first major assignment — a piece on the legendary coach for Look magazine. Lombardi isn’t that keen on talking to the kid, however, or having him speak to his players, in light of a previous article about him that didn’t meet his satisfaction.
The coach’s wife, Marie (Carolyn Cook), lets Michael stay in their house while he does his research. Their rapport is more genial, with Marie inviting him to their “rec room” after Sunday afternoon game for parties. The reporter spends as much time with Marie as he does the coach himself and over cocktails, Marie relates much of her husband’s story — from his days of frustration at getting no job offers to the infamous phone call from the Packers organization asking him to leave the powerhouse New York Giants for Green Bay. (“Green Bay? Where is that?” asks Marie, grabbing an atlas in a flashback.) She also explains with some ruefulness that football is as important — or more-so — than God or family to her husband.
Lombardi’s players include Dave Robinson, Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung. Robinson (John Stewart) is an African American who shares with McCormick his appreciation that the coach looks after him and other African American players. Taylor (Jacob York) is in talks with his agent and weighing an offer to go to another team. The least developed of the three Packers is Hornung (Brody Wellmaker), although Simonson does point out the young man’s fondness for alcohol and partying.
Running a mere 75 minutes, Lombardi doesn’t cut that deep. It’s based in part on the biography When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, written by David Maraniss. Adapting that book for the stage, Eric Simonson — a Steppenwolf Theatre Company member who nabbed an Academy Award for his short subject documentary A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin — never fully explains the Lombardi mystique, what set him apart from other coaches outside of his victories. A lot of factual information is presented — Lombardi’s Super Bowl rings, the subsequent naming of the Super Bowl trophy after him and his eventual death from cancer in 1970. Surprisingly, though, there aren’t many layers to the character here. Much of what Michael finds out about the coach is through Marie and the players. At times, Lombardi feels like a supporting player in his own play.
As directed by Justin Anderson, Lombardi moves along sturdily enough despite a lot of talk. From time to time, Anderson incorporates clips from key games as part of the production.
What Lombardi offers most of all is chewy characters for the leads. (The 2010 Broadway run starred Judith Light as Marie and Dan Lauria of The Wonder Years as the coach.) Anderson’s ensemble is small but tight. Bart Hansard gets it just right as the coach — the growl, the accent, the belief that second place is bunk. The role may not take him on much of an arc, but Hansard is certainly believable and committed.
Cook gets a more fleshed-out character and brings freshness to it, frequently taking in cocktails and providing counterbalance to the close-lipped Lombardi himself. Cook’s scenes with Moses are the liveliest and funniest in the show. Moses acquits himself well, too. He doesn’t have the years behind him that Hansard and Cook have, but he manages to dig out a character and his own presence.
Lombardi will probably be enjoyed more by sports fans familiar with Lombardi’s career than average theatergoers; it’s timed appropriately to coincide with the NFL playoff season. As it is, Lombardi is more of a pre-game show than a championship event, but at least its team is composed of top-of-the-line players.