I’m told that grown men cry watching Lombardi, the NFL-backed cardboard standee of a play currently putting the “square” back in the Circle in the Square. (Something truly invigorating needs to colonize this theater, and fast: Barely a year’s elapsed since The Norman Conquests, and already it’s starting to smell suspiciously like my grandparents’ basement.) Personally, I didn’t cry, and I have trouble imagining the mindset that would — but then again, I’ve never worn foam cheese on my head or withstood subzero gales for love of the game. And let’s face it: In the age of the tea party, the bar for hot hetero-masculine tears has been lowered considerably. My heart remained stubbornly unconcussed by Lombardi, a rock-steady hour and a half of rhythmic motivational screaming from Dan Lauria in the title role, broken up by gentle interludes of docudrama that wouldn’t be out of place in an Epcot animatronics show. The play belongs on a pageant wagon parked outside Lambeau Field; its presence on Broadway is, to adopt the parlance, a real ball-scratcher.
But then, I’m not sure even the cheesiest Cheesehead would find much to move him here. Vince Lombardi, football fans and theatergoers alike will be puzzled to learn, is not the subject of Lombardi. It’s actually a play about journalism, a subject nearly as depressing to journalists these days as it must be to football fans. Taking up a familiar crutch of pop hagiography, playwright and Steppenwolf Theatre Company member Eric Simonson entrusts the storytelling to an earnest young (fictional) reporter, Michael McCormick (The Pacific’s Keith Nobbs, surprisingly likable in an irritating role). Simonson, in a script note, says he’s loosely based McCormick on the sportswriter W.C. Heinz, who co-wrote the gridiron classic Running for Daylight with Lombardi after spending a disastrous week trying to get inside the coach’s head for a story: He couldn’t beat him, so he joined him.
McCormick, however, is the kind of authorial composite who can neither beat nor join, only narrate and mope. All well and good, but please, don’t ask the people in the stands to root for narration. We don’t care whether Mike finishes his story, if it’s any good, or if Lombardi, a control freak, ends up getting the final edit. Even Nobbs's best efforts can’t disguise his synthetic origins. Already, Simonson’s set himself up for failure: He’s named his play after a god, then appointed a voyeur as his envoy. It’s hardly a shock that we end up circling a statue as the play quickly disintegrates into stats and factoids.
Holding it all together is plenty of gummy cliché, the duct tape of dinner theater. Mike is sent on your typical go-get-’em-kid suicide mission to bottle the essence of a Great Man. He’s got daddy issues, naturally — no better passport to adventure there — and what better tonic than some tough love from the title character, the Allfather of American Football? For this, the Green Bay Packers’ sainted coach has been reanimated, with vim and spittle, by Dan Lauria, best known (even in his own bio) as “the gruff Dad on The Wonder Years.” Playing an icon who’s been more or less reduced, in the popular mind, to the word winning (though he never actually uttered that famous phrase, the play wiki informs us), Lauria does little to scrape off the bronze and find the man inside. And why should he? Neither Simonson’s script nor director Thomas Kail seems to be asking him to. Lauria’s merely called upon to roar and rant and aphorize, and occasionally double over in pain, a nod to the colon cancer brewing in his gut. (Clutching a protuberant belly and vowing never to let some doctor put a scope “up there”: It’s the male-melodrama equivalent of the tragic cough into the blood-speckled hankie.) Occasionally, Lauria prowls the outer boundaries of the man’s son-of-immigrants insecurities, but there’s precious little time for detail work between barking fits, and these declamations are clearly where he’s put the bulk of his preparation.
Mike, despite his obsequious reverence, seems to tire of Lombardi nearly as quickly as we do. Instead, he bonds with Vince’s tottering fish-out-of-Joisey wife, Marie (Judith Light, approaching her character, on teetery period heels, as a Ricky’s version of a Real Housewife). He also chats up a trio of Packers, Paul Hornung (Bill Dawes), Dave Robinson (Robert Christopher Riley), and Jim Taylor (Chris Sullivan). Of these, only Sullivan really stands out: His brief and broadly funny yet never cheap embodiment of Taylor, a future hall-of-famer who’s flirting with free agency, achieves a degree of dramatic involvement the rest of the show can’t begin to approach. Kail, fighting the play’s tendency to speechify and the Circle’s theater-in-the-round configuration, turns his actors inward, making it hard for the show’s meager dramatic energies to escape. The whole production has a distinctly low-wattage look to it, utterly out of place with its hale-fellow rah-rah sentimentality. Is this game day or a wake? And either way, shouldn’t someone have brought some beer?
In the end, Mike, despite his wealth of pigskin trivia and his proclaimed affection for Lombardi, never really tells us why he was a great coach — or whether being a great coach made him a great man. Lombardi’s godliness is simply taken for granted. A quick video-assisted sequence outlines his signature play, which combines lockstep teamwork and nimble free-thinking. (The receiver is expected to “run for daylight,” and make tactical choices in real time, wherever he sees an opening.) Was Lombardi’s coaching and management style — Cold War blind obedience matched with empowered, inspired individual decision-making — a protrusion of the zeitgeist? Did being the game’s greatest coach necessarily make him the world’s greatest man? And, finally, who was Lombardi, beyond being a drill sergeant with one great play, a gut full of death and several Bartlett’s worth of apothegms to dispense? Beyond the obvious answers (his marriage was flawed, his drive to win was also his curse), these are not matters Lombardi concerns itself with. Perhaps that’s because the man’s dark, tumescent interior really seems to frighten this show. It simply refuses to go “up there.”