Arizona Theatre Company's Lombardi Leaves Little to Cheer About

I almost never attend Sunday evening theater performances. I did on a recent weekend, when I went to see Arizona Theatre Company's Lombardi, about the life and football coaching career of NFL hero Vince Lombardi. Sunday night audiences, I can now tell you, are distinctly different from the opening night theater crowd with whom I usually watch plays. For one thing, they talk more (especially the people seated on my right). They find hilarious the pre-recorded announcement about unwrapping hard candies before the show. And for them, a polo shirt worn by either a man or a woman apparently counts as "dressing up."

Eric Simonson's play, which ran on Broadway two years ago to mixed reviews, offers a fly-on-the-wall week in the life of Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi during the 1965 football season. While Lombardi is attempting to bully his team into a championship, he's being followed around by a Look magazine reporter, Michael McCormick, who's doing a personality profile on Lombardi.

But McCormick's first assignment isn't going so well: The footballers are refusing to talk to him, and Lombardi's wife, Marie, is little help. Once he finally finds his angle, the reporter discovers that Lombardi has brokered a story-approval deal with McCormick's editor — anathema to any journalist.

The late Vince Lombardi (and actor Bob Ari) salute the balcony seats.
The late Vince Lombardi (and actor
Bob Ari) salute the balcony seats.

Although the play is ostensibly about Lombardi, it's Nick Mills, as the apocryphal Michael McCormick (who's presumably a stand-in for Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss, upon whose book When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi this play is based), who has the most to do, including — because he narrates the action — a lot of standing around watching the story he's telling us. He plays anger, sadness, and reverence with equal skill, and his performance seems all the more impressive alongside the formidable physical presence of the trio of wooden actors who depict various real-life Packers. By contrast, DeeDee Rescher, as Lombardi's whiskey-voiced wife, is a shiny paste brooch in a hamperful of sweat socks. She paces and pontificates and brings some real warmth to Simonson's two-dimensional attempt at a footballer's wife.

If there's a problem with Lombardi, it lies not in Casey Stangl's workmanlike direction, but in a script that requires its titular character to be played full-throttle for two longish acts. Bob Ari's Lombardi thrashes and hollers, bellowing nearly every one of his lines after rising dramatically through the floor of the stage, bracketed by Michael Schweikardt's bright set, banked with lights and a low-tech electric scoreboard.

In the end, Lombardi is less about a famous NFL coach than it is about the often- strained relationships between men and their fathers. And when all Dad does is shout, there's little for the crowd to cheer about.

 
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