One of the hurdles that some audience members may need to climb when watching Lombardi, Arizona Theatre Company’s new production which opened this past weekend at Herberger Theatre Center, is this: Can great sports achievements and a desire to win games at all costs, no matter how personal, be a rewarding experience in the theatre? While finally getting the chance to watch the celebrated Broadway drama on a local stage, you may be struck with the same question that kept plaguing me; Is Lombardi worth this kind of attention, particularly when the more familiar you become with the character, the less likable he becomes? The question may be sacrilege to those who regard Lombardi as the most celebrated name in NFL, but to those whose interest does not stretch to sports, the answer may well be, not really.
Michael McCornick (Nick Mills) is a reporter working for Look Magazine. With arrangements made through the editor, a friend of Lombardi’s, the young reporter is allowed to stay for a week in 1965 at the home of the fiery football coach where he’ll gather information and hopefully write a story reflecting the real Lombardi.
The essence of Lombardi’s character is revealed the moment he first bursts onto the stage. The reporter has already arrived and is talking with Lombardi’s wife, Marie (DeeDee Rescher) when Lombardi (an impressive Bob Ari) enters and demands, “Who the heck is that?” Through negotiations with a friend, if anyone had arranged for a stranger to live in your home for a week, wouldn’t you reasonably understand who the new guy standing in the middle of your living room is? Not Lombardi. His single-mindedness doesn’t appear to allow anything even slightly outside of his world of control to enter his thoughts.
Through the device of using interviews with team players, and most importantly, Marie, we and the young reporter learn a lot about Lombardi. “We’re only here because we have to win,” he declares, then adds, “And we only want winners.” As Marie tells the reporter when explaining her husband’s values, Lombardi is only interested in three things: “God, family and football.” After pointing out that those three don’t necessarily come in that order, she adds, “Family is a distant third.”
Occasionally we get insights from the man himself. “This is a cruel game,” he tells the reporter, then admits at a later time, “I got a temper.” And he does, often telling his wife and anyone else near him to, “Shuttup!” At one point, even the reporter becomes the receiver of one of Lombardi’s unwarranted tirades.
But his achievements on the field can never be ignored. As the reporter tells us after a successful game, “His players were so well prepared, he (Lombardi) was the most useless man on the field.”
Director Casey Stangl effectively fills the wide and occasionally sparse stage with her six players, plus she has cast the play to near perfection. The three actors who represent the team both look and sound like players, plus the three leads, the fictional reporter, the acerbic Marie and Lombardi, deliver compelling, Broadway standard performances. In fact, Ari makes Lombardi so compelling that his long absences from the stage while the play concentrates on others illustrates part of the failings of the script by David Maraniss. Films and plays that seriously cover sports are often unsuccessful in effectively conveying the reason behind the passion or the bullying drive of figures considered legendary. “There was no coming in second in Mr. Lombardi’s book,” we are told, which is all well and good, but it’s a philosophy that has nothing to do with the love of playing the game.
Even though there’s a moment when the play briefly mentions the subject of finances it’s never explored. You can’t help asking if, perhaps, there wasn’t so much money invested in the team and his salary, would Lombardi always be so overbearingly single-minded as he is here? If the answer is yes and he really was naturally this hot-tempered, opinionated, and wanted only winners at the cost of everything and everyone around him, including his own family, then no matter what his achievements, what is there to admire?