In the fall of 2009 into the late summer of 2010, one of my favorite TV programs, Steve Allen’s Meeting of Minds, had come back to the stage. thanks to the hard working efforts of the people at Working Stage, especially Dan Lauria. Unfortunately, the run was ending: Working Stage had lost the use of the Steve Allen Theatre, and Dan Lauria was heading off to Broadway to star alongside Judith Light in some new play about a football coach. I was always curious about the play that brought an end of Meeting of Minds in Los Angeles, and last night I finally got the chance to see it at the Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB): the West Coast Premiere of Lombardi by Eric Simonson.
I have to admit, going in, that I really know nothing about football. That’s the game they play on the court where they kick an orange ball and make baskets, right? Seriously, I think I’ve been to one football game in my life (in the 80s, at UCLA). But I have heard of Vince Lombardi, although I knew little about him. In other words, I was probably your typical theatre audience member seeing this play :-). That’s because sports, as a subject, is not common theatrical fodder: you can probably count on all your fingers the numbers of shows about any major league sports: football, baseball, basketball, soccer, etc. combined. This is odd because sports and theatre are oddly similar: both are intensely dramatic, both follow a back and forth story to get to the ultimate goal, and both have coaches that can have intense winning and losing streaks. Both also have their ardent fans, and both often require sacrifices on the parts of the players (even if they are well compensated).
I’m pleased to say that — as a distinct non-football fan — I enjoyed the story. The pacing was reasonably fast (the show runs a bit over 90 minutes without an intermission). It gave a great sense of the man and his approach to coaching and life (which I’m not sure could be separated). It did not require understanding the specifics of the game of football and its terminology (one could treat that like technobabble on Star Trek). Yet, I think, it remains accessible to the football lover — the man or woman who lives for Monday Night Football and the NFL, the one ardently concerned about whether LA will get a football team. I do encourage those with a sports fanatic in their life — someone who might never normally go to the theater — to bring that person to this show. It might get them hooked.
Lombardi depends on a simple storytelling hook to tell the lifestory of Vince Lombardi: A reporter from Look Magazine who has come to Green Bay to do a piece on Lombardi. This reporter, Michael McCormick, was created by the author (according to the play’s study guide), who also created a fictitious connection between the reporter’s father and Lombardi. This hook permits the reporter to interview players, family, and the coach himself to bring out the story; it also permits the use of flashbacks to illustrate points as well as the use of direct exposition to the audience by the reporter. I read some reviews where this approach was viewed as problematic; I didn’t find it a problem. I do agree with the articles that this approach tended to keep the larger swirl of the world outside away from the story of the play. Was that a problem? I tend to think that it wasn’t, because America has shown time and time again that professional football is a world unto itself; fans tend to like football precisely because it tends to keep the harsh realities of the world away.
In preparing for this writeup after the show, I read a number of online articles about Vince Lombardi, including his wikipedia page and a very interesting interview about the man held with Dan Lauria when the show was on Broadway. Based on these, I think that Simonson captured about 80% of the legendary man’s character. In particular, it provided glimpses of the man’s values with respect to civil rights — he was famously quoted that he viewed his players as neither black nor white, but Packer green. It did not show his equivalent values regarding homosexuality, which are even more notable given the time and context of the play and the fact that Lombardi came from a strong Roman Catholic background. I think the most important thing that the play captured was Lombardi’s ethic: his notion that winners thought of themselves as winners, that winning was an attitude, and that it was always possible to win with appropriate effort, perseverance, and hard hard work. More importantly, it captured the complement to the attitude: that losing was an unacceptable attitude, that even permitting the notion of losing might make one a loser. It showed, reasonably well, how this attitude not only permeated both his team life and his home life — in fact, how it lead to his death. The man was so focused on winning, he couldn’t even admit when his body was losing a battle. (I’ll note, however, that the stomach problems shown in the play would have put the production near the end of Lombardi’s Green Bay run, in 1967-1968 — not the 1965 time shown in the play).
If there was any weaknesses in the story, it was the few ancillary threads that got brought up and discarded. The whole bit with the players union seemed to be overemphasized solely to explain why one player didn’t talk to the reporter; Lombardi’s children were brought up and promptly never mentioned again. Those are more writing flaws than production flaws.
The director, Gregg T. Daniel (FB), did a good job of bringing out the realism and inner characters of the people portrayed in the story. I often write that I have difficultly separating what the actor brings from what the director adds. I’m crediting the director here more for the overall feel created — the little touches of having the football players practicing onstage during the pre-show period, of having the actors provide the football noise background during the scenery change blackouts, and such. This is something an actor would not bring, but is an attention to detail that a director would bring to the story.
Let’s talk a little about the actors and what they brought, and how their characters worked in the story. In the lead position was Bert Emmett (FB) as Vince Lombardi. Emmett assumed the role well; I could see nothing of the Bert Emmett I had gotten to know in other roles at GRT over the years. In fact, I could also feel Dan Lauria superimposed over Emmett in the production, for Emmett brought a Broadway-quality immersion to Lombardi. The character, as written, captured the discipline, internal strength, and anger of the man; it also captured how his wife could humanize him. Emmett brought those aspects out in his performance. In short, to this audience member who knew nothing about the real Vince Lombardi, Emmett seemed very Lombardi-like.
As the reporter/foil, Troy Whitaker (FB) — another GRT regular — gave off a youthful naivete that worked well. He seemed to have an uncanny recall of football statistics — as if there was a script in the background — but this was believable simply because there are football geeks who know statistics that well. Whether a cub writer in the early 1960s would have access to such statistics is a different question, and is a minor flaw in the writing of the story. Independent of that, Whitaker was a believable reporter and propelled the story along well. In his few scenes where he stood up to Lombardi, he had sufficient backbone to be believable.
Julia Silverman (FB) portrayed Lombardi’s wife, Marie. The characteristics I’ve read about Marie in the various sources came across well in the portrayal — the sacrifice, the heavy heavy drinking, the ability to be the only person that could get Lombardi to back down. Her overall role in the play was small, but critical in the overall arc of Lombardi’s wife.
The cast was rounded out by the three football players: Steven West (FB) as Dave Robinson, Ian Stanley as Paul Hornung, and Christopher Hawthorn as Jim Taylor. I think the most important fact is that these three were believably football players, and they were believably distinct characters. This is a good thing. Each provided useful insights into Lombardi’s character. About my only quibble was the Hawthorn seemed a bit slight to be a football player, but then what do I know about football players :-).
The production itself was relatively simple set-wise. There were a large number of chalkboards with football plays on them (don’t ask me if they were correct plays), with a projection screen on the back, and two side projection screens. There was a small office for Lombardi off to the side that was used for one scene. In general, location was established through a projection on the back screen, with either or both of the side screens used for ancillary location establishment. There were a number of set pieces (couches, benches) that were constantly being moved on and off the stage by the football players. This design (by Chris Winfield (FB)) worked given the limitations of the GRT space. THe sound design by Steve Shaw (FB) provided suitable sound effects. The lighting design by J. Kent Inasy mostly worked; there were a few moments in the beginning where there was a disconnect between blocking and lighting (i.e., people were in the dark) — presumably, that will be adjusted as the show goes on. The costumes by Angela M. Eads seemed appropriately period; I cannot speak to whether the numbers for the players reflected their actual numbers, or whether the costumes were historically correct for the Packers of that period. Trust me, there are people that will comment on that. Remaining technical and production credits: Christian Ackerman/FB [Videographer], Glenda Morgan Brown (FB) [Dialect Coach], Nora Feldman (FB) [Public Relations], Doug Haverty (FB) and Arts & Sound Design [Graphic Design], Drina Durazo (FB) [Program, Producer for GRT], Haley Miller [Director’s Assistant], Mikel Parraga/FB [Assistant Director]. The program does not contain a credit for stage manager.
Lombardi continues at the Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB) until September 6th. Tickets are available through OvationTix (GRT’s online box office). Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar and LA Stage Tix. The show is well worth seeing even if you don’t like football; it is especially well worth seeing if you like football.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres: REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: Our triple header weekend continues today with the annual Operaworks show in the afternoon, followed by seeing Astro Boy again in the evening at Sacred Fools Theatre Company (FB). August continues the craziness, with a double header at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) the first weekend: “As You Like It” on Saturday, and the rescheduled “Green Grow The Lilacs” on Sunday. The second weekend of August is equally busy, with “The Fabulous Lipitones” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on Friday, our summer Mus-ique show on Saturday, and Concerts on the Green in Warner Park (with a Neil Diamond cover band) on Sunday. The third weekend of August is calmer, but only because we moved theatre off the weekend because my wife is driving my daughter’s car back to the bay area. As for me, I might very well go back to see the revised “Jesus Christ Superstar” at REP East (FB) — they are returning to have live music and I expect that will make a significant difference. The third week of August may see us back at REP East (FB) for their “secret seventh show”, which has been revealed to be “A Company of Wayward Saints“. After that we’ll need a vacation … but then again we might squeeze in Evita at the Maui Cultural Center (FB) the last weekend of August. September right now is mostly open, with the only ticketed show being “The Diviners” at REP East (FB) and a hold-the-date for “First Date” at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB). October will bring another Fringe Festival: the NoHo Fringe Festival (FB). October also has the following as ticketed or hold-the-dates: CSUN’s Urinetown (end of October – 10/30 or 11/1); “The Best of Enemies” at The Colony Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/10); and “Damn Yankees” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/17). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.