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LOMBARDI kicks a field goal at Cleveland Play House

LOMBARDI kicks a field goal at Cleveland Play House 

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Vince Lombardi, the long time Green Bay Packers coach, is considered to be one of the, if not the most inspirational football coaches of all time.  Unknown to many is the fact that if not for Paul Brown, the first head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Lombardi might never have gone from being a New York Giant’s offensive assistant coach to his reign with the Pack.  It was Brown, recognized as the father of modern football, who, in 1958, recommended that Green Bay hire Vincent Thomas Lombardi.

LOMBARDI, which is now on stage at Cleveland Play House, is a bio-fiction by Eric Simonson whose scenes shift between the Lombardi house to the playing field, to his office, to the locker room.  Based on the book WHEN PRIDE STILL MATTERED:  A LIFE OF VINCE LOMBARDI by David Maraniss, the story centers on the fictional Michael McCormick, a supposed reporter for Look Magazine, who is assigned to do a feature on Lombardi.  McCormick’s boss, Tom Ryder, arranged for McCormick to be a house guest of the Lombardi’s, Vince and his wife Marie.

It’s 1965. Lombardi has transformed the Pack into a championship team, following a 12-year losing streak.  (And, you thought being a Browns fan is rough.)  The reporter’s probing displays both Lombardi’s brilliance and dark holes, his all too human positives, and his flaws and vulnerabilities.  It also showcases the love for his players, his difficulty in being a good father, and his wife’s keeping him in some kind of emotional balance.

How much of this depiction of the great man is true?  Who knows.  Can we trust Maraniss’s book and Simonson’s play?  Whatever, the story, as it is developed by the duo makes a plausible case for revealing the Lombardi known to the public as well as the private man.

Lombardi is as well known for his pontificating about life, as he was as a football genius.  His quotes include:  “People who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defenses, or the problems of modern society.” “Winning is not a sometime thing, it is an all the time thing. You don’t do things right once in a while…you do them right all the time.” And, “To achieve success, whatever the job we have, we must pay a price.”

Interestingly, as revealed in the play, his most famous line, “Winning isn’t everything it’s the only thing,” wasn’t a Lombardi original.  It was actually uttered in the 1953 movie, Trouble Along the Way.

The CPH production, under the direction of Casey Stengl, is generally engaging.  The two-act play is well paced, the characterizations clearly etched, the staging on target.

Bob Ari, who won over Cleveland audiences as contemporary artist Mark Rothko in last season’s RED, is mostly effective as Lombardi.   Part of the difficulty in his character development is the way the role is written.  Ari often finds himself having to change emotional moods with little lead up or stimulus, which results in some acting rather than reaction moments.

DeeDee Rescher as Maria, Lombardi’s heavy drinking wife, is wonderful.  She has a fine sense of comic timing, a consistent New Jersey accent, and handles sarcasm well.

Nick Mills, as Michael, the reporter, jumps back and forth between being the story’s narrator and the principal catalyst for the action, comfortably.  He is quite believable.

Branton Box has the good looks and Superman body of the womanizing playboy Paul Hornung.  Box has the cocky attitude and swgger down perfectly.  William Oliver Watkins as Dave Robinson, and David Hardie as Jim Taylor each develop a spot on characterization.

When the show opened on Broadway, of the five major reviewers, two loved it, two hated it, and one was on the fence.  The script was termed, “heavy on sports and light on content”  and “the play doesn’t make it to the goal line.”   It was also sized up as being “mostly predictable and mechanically digestible.” On the other hand it was also dubbed,  an “extremely well-crafted piece of intelligent middlebrow theater.”

I found the script uneven, lacking at times, while being fascinating in some instances.  The story held my attention, but was not compelling.  The production got all it could out of what it had to work with.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  LOMBARDI doesn’t get the full six points of scoring a touchdown, but is good enough to get three for kicking a field goal.