The new Broadway play about Vince Lombardi is more interested in the myth than the man.

Notes on the stage.
Oct. 22 2010 7:13 AM

Lombardi Punts

The new play about the Green Bay Packers coach is more interested in the myth than the man.

Future Pro Football Hall of Fame head coach of the Green Bay Packers Vince Lombardi poses here as a student at Fordham University circa the mid-1930s.
Young Vince Lombardi was a student athlete at Fordham University 

In 1963, the National Football League suspended running back Paul Hornung of the world champion Green Bay Packers for gambling on NFL games. It was a black eye for the athlete, whom the media had anointed the Golden Boy, and for the young league as well. Hornung's coach, Vince Lombardi, was devastated. The running back was like a son to him, but he'd lied when Lombardi confronted him privately about the rumor. It was a betrayal of their friendship, the rules of the sport, and the trust of a team.

This is the stuff of great drama, but despite the fact that Lombardi, which opens today on Broadway, takes place just one season after the suspension ended and focuses on, among other things, the relationship between Lombardi and Hornung, there's a vague allusion to a suspension but no mention of what became a national scandal about gambling. Hornung's main flaw is that he's something of a playboy. Lombardi, alas, is less interested in telling a compelling story than burnishing the image of the canniest league in professional sports. The play's dramatic moments are complemented by Packers highlights projected onstage and swelling music designed to get your heart beating faster. If it looks like a commercial for the NFL, that may be because the league is one of its producers.

Tony Monturo, who for many years was the head of media and sports marketing for Anheuser-Busch, conceived the production and recruited the NFL, which saw an opportunity to reach new audiences. The league made no direct investment in the production but provided hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of marketing and put its seal on the poster. The Wall Street Journal breathlessly described the partnership as a possible "prototype for a new way of financing productions and promoting brands."

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To be fair, they don't call it the commercial theater for nothing. Just around the corner from Lombardi is the Snapple Theater Center, which is only a few blocks from the theater where producers put product placement for Montblanc pens in La Boheme. But a corporation producing a key part of its own origin myth is far more troubling and worse for the future of Broadway—and the evidence is onstage.

Lombardi may seem like just another boring bio-play, struggling gamely to win over football fans without losing those who don't know a sweep from a blitz. But it could have been a great drama if it had stayed faithful to its magnificent source material, David Maraniss' book When Pride Still Mattered. The book's title is laced with irony that is wholly absent from the play: In his meticulously reported biography, Maraniss exposes the idea of a simpler, innocent sporting past as a fake by digging into stories like the one about Hornung's suspension. He also documents the role of the media in creating the enduring metaphors of football as war, religion, and character-building pastime.

Maraniss' book deflates the mythology of sport, so it's almost perverse that Eric Simonson's play puffs it back up. Every character is a whitewash, starting with the young New York writer (played by the fine actor Keith Nobbs) reporting a profile of Lombardi. He is loosely based on W.C. Heinz, who wrote Run to Daylight, the classic examination of a week of preparation and game-time decisions by Lombardi. Heinz's book makes an argument for the complexity of the game. But Simonson cares more about broad emotional themes than complexity, so he turns the veteran writer into a young, impossibly earnest soul who sees Lombardi the way the audience is clearly meant to: as a gruff, imperfect, but ultimately fair father figure.

Dan Lauria plays Lombardi with an explosive temper but leavens it with the same gentle affection that he gave the father in the TV series The Wonder Years. As for the most compelling question Simonson's play raises—why was Lombardi so good at what he did?—his answer is ultimately unpersuasive. Lauria doesn't inspire through speeches or strategic sophistication. He motivates through discipline and heartfelt affection for his players. It is surely true that Lombardi loved his players, but he also had no patience for pain or injury and was a brutal negotiator.

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