After Look magazine reporter Michael McCormick (Jordan Glaski) has tracked legendary football coach Vince Lombardi (Roy van Norstrand) down the icy Wisconsin streets of Green Bay, he contemplates what title he might give his article when completed. McCormick has witnessed the constant bombast, the bullying of players and the demonic resolve. Never, however, does he come across weaknesses, the kind of feet of clay portrayed in an article appearing in Esquire just before his arrival. Instead, there is granite. Lombardi insults his wife Marie in front of strangers, but she speaks of him only with love. Hmmmm, maybe the article’s title could be “Shut Up, Marie!”
The defunct Look, a rival of Henry Luce’s Life, was long on pictures and short on words, but don’t let that bother you. In Lombardi, the new show from Not Another Theater Company at the Locker Room’s Fire and Ice Banquet Hall, the searching journalist McCormick is a fictional creation of playwright Eric Simonson, apparently as an evocation of Citizen Kane. We approach the coach though the points of view of people the reporter seeks out, like wife Marie and three very different players. Speakers’ memories give us information about Lombardi’s life-out-of-time sequence but those recollections construct an order about how he developed and worked.
There are two differences from Citizen Kane, however. Instead of being faceless, McCormick has a pungent personality, signaled by his long hair, sideburns and soul patch under his lip. He may spout sports statistics, but his casual demeanor, with paisley print shirts hanging over his belt, contrasts with the quasi-military bearing of the uniformed jocks. The coach may have admired McCormick’s late father, but we see the two on a collision course early on.
Secondly, there’s no “Rosebud,” no mystery, no hidden flaw, no secret to be chased down and seized. What you see is what you get. “This is a cruel game,” Lombardi tells us again and again. In an age of sports metaphors, we don’t need to be told he’s talking about more than football.
Simonson’s play wants to get its arms around the legend, but also wants to shed clichés. He might have said the tagline so often associated with his name, “Winning isn’t everything: It’s the only thing,” but it did not originate with him. It comes from the 1953 movie comedy Trouble Along the Way, with John Wayne as a divorced coach trying to rescue the football program of a small, struggling Catholic college. Child actress Sherry Jackson, whose custody Wayne fights to retain, actually utters the line.
Vince Lombardi the dramatic character traverses a very narrow arc, and it comes early in his life. He once doubted himself and felt unappreciated. As a second-string coach for the prize-winning New York Giants, he could never move up. Perhaps he was blocked from advancement by having a name that ended in a vowel. He gave some thought to returning to the classroom as a science teacher, seen as a safe but pedestrian route to follow.
Even the offer from Green Bay looked condescending. In the previous season it had the worst record in the league, 1-10-1. And that ice-cold burg was the smallest city in professional sports. Not only is Vince unsure of where it is, Marie can’t find it in a road atlas. Maybe it’s an Indian reservation.
With the exception of Glaski as reporter McCormick, all of director Dustin Czarny’s casting choices are against type, which works well for what we see. Van Norstrand in the title role is not only not Italian but he doesn’t look much like Lombardi, being a head taller. What he delivers, however, is superior to Ernest Borgnine’s Lombardi in the 1973 television production Legend in Granite, which covers some of the same story. Borgnine, 39 years younger, might have looked more like Lombardi, but underneath he was still Marty the needful butcher.
In contrast, each van Norstrand verbal thrust is a haymaker, ready to knock the miscreant in line. Similarly, van Norstrand is convincing when he cossets a player five minutes after he has blasted him. And he sounds like a true believer with Lombardi’s words of inspiration that can be corny out of context: “You’re going to be the Yankees of professional football!” Perhaps it’s van Norstrand’s height, or maybe Czarny’s interpretation, but the Lombardi we see here invites comparisons with George C. Scott’s Gen. George C. Patton: an uncompromising hard-ass who inspires.
As Marie, Anne Fitzgerald (the offstage Mrs. van Norstrand) is better known for comedy, having just been nominated for a SALT (Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater) Award in a Noel Coward confection. Here her subtext is nine yards deep: She’s not long-suffering and she knows what’s what.
Barbara Toman’s Green Bay uniforms go a long way toward making the three players look like members of the team. Emblematic of what can be done is the Dave Robinson character played by Stephfond Brunson, one of the area’s most popular comedians and choreographers. Brunson has Robinson’s voice perfect for 50 years ago when black players were rare in professional football. When Lombardi wanted players to avoid some watering holes, he insisted that those who took on the team serve “whites and negroes” equally.
With his hair dyed golden yellow, Dan Rowlands is almost unrecognizable as Kentucky-born playboy-cutup Paul Hornung. Part of Hornung’s undiscipline is in not settling on which position he wants to play. He turns out to thrive under imposed order. In a speech asking us to look forward, Hornung proclaims, “I’d rather have one season with Lombardi than 10 seasons for $1 million.”
Lombardi warns reporter McCormick away from the third player, Jim Taylor (Matt Nilsen), who first appears to be a neurotic and malcontent. Nothing to fear, it turns out that he’s a team player, too.
If professional sports have become a kind of religion, Lombardi—a daily Mass attendee—is ready to worship with his acolytes. “Freedom though discipline: It’s a Jesuit principle,” the reporter agrees with the coach.
The sports metaphors extend to Navroz Dabu’s set, which is painted green turf with the 50-yard line down the middle.
As one of the reviewers remarked at the 2010 opening of Lombardi, it’s that rare thing, a drama for regular guys: just the thing they can drag their wives to.
This production runs through Saturday, April 7. See Times Table for information.