August 18, 2012

When Football Defined the American Dream

Thoughts on Lombardi, presented by the Harbor Lights Theater Company

Last night I attended the premiere of Lombardi, performed by the Harbor Lights Theater Company. The venue was the Veteran's Memorial Hall Playhouse, located on the grounds of Snug Harbor, and offered an intimate portrayal into the life of Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Greenbay Packers during the early 1960's. I was a bit skeptical as I took my seat, as I would much rather a Greek tragedy to a play about sports. I have little to no interest in football but decided to throw myself out of my comfort zone to see what all the talk was about.

The set design by Marija Plavsic offers a modest but realistic portrayal of the interior of the Lombardi home and office. On the stage-left side, we see the infamous chalk board with strategic game outlines. To the stage-right side, we see the Lombardi living room with a cocktail bar at the center of the stage. The set remains the same throughout the play, leaving minimal changes in scenery. A projection screen hangs overhead, showing the games as they were happening, which adds a nice effect to the show. It feels as though we are watching the game from the bleachers.

The play's premise is thoughtfully simple. A young writer, Michael McCormick, travels from New York City to Greenbay, Wisconsin to write about the obnoxious, loud football coach that has captured plenty of media attention during his tenure. After being the subject of several scathing articles, Lombardi tries to turn over a new public image by giving McCormick (portrayed by the lively Benjamin Katz) scarce details on his life. The most important thing is to win; to keep trying until one wins. Losing is not an option.

This sentiment is at the heart of the play. Vince Lombardi's outspoken abrasiveness is rooted in the philosophy of perseverance. Beneath his hotheaded exterior, Lombardi preaches some radical ideas within the game of football. Most notably, in 1965 Greenbay, Wisconsin he makes sure that all of his team members are treated equally. Dave Robinson, the only black-American character in the play, states that the coach does not allow them to stay at hotels or frequent bars that do not allow all of the players inside. This was definitely an important, albeit radical, stance during the height of segregation. 

While I found the dialogue dry at times, the actors really embodied their characters. Susan Cella, portraying Marie Lombardi, was comical as the wife. Underneath the rough, New Jersey accent was a woman who reveled in her role as the wife. Yet, there was also a sadness to her character as she lived under the iron fist of her husband and his career. She was suffocated beneath his overbearing persona and temper. I had wished that Vito D'Ambrosio would have delved deeper into the character of Vince Lombardi. At times, his portrayal seemed one-dimensional. He certainly commanded a large presence on stage, I just wish he would have let the subtle insecurities of Mr. Lombardi surface in a realistic way. I think this could have been achieved had the script been a little stronger.

The most engaging scenes are those that feature the narrator and the football team. They are the most animated group and the dialogue flowed naturally between them. The football players moonlight as masochists, as most athletes are, in that they take a beating daily (verbally and physically) but love the game so much they want nothing more than to please the coach. I thought Erik Gullberg, Israel McKinney Scott, and Bruch Reed added some comedic relief to their characters while shedding light onto what it means to be an athlete: the daily suffering, the injuries, the harsh physicality, the training. They are the highlight of the show.

Benjamin Katz as Michael McCormick, the aspiring journalist from New York, sank his teeth into his role. He really afforded his character the struggle to stay convicted to his beliefs in the face of the monstrous Vince Lombardi.  He added a bit of drama to the play, as he did not wish to write an unrealistic story that glorified the coach. He had always loved football and seemed torn between reality and his love of the game. His deceased father was also a sports journalist, and McCormick aptly wants to distinguish himself from his father's legacy. This narrative arch held my attention throughout the play, as I wanted to see McCormick grow into his own as a writer and man. At the end of the play he accomplishes just this because he remained true to his beliefs.

Overall, I was impressed with the play's set design and the actor's character portrayals. The play itself was a little slow and the characters could have been more fully explored. At the end of the evening, I was most impressed with how many seats were filled in the audience. The Harbor Lights Theater Company is gaining much esteem on Staten Island and I applaud this season's programming which features something for everyone. Even as the least likely football fan in the room (okay, I have actually never sat through an entire game), I was completely invested in the play's action. 

What Lombardi does is take the audience to a time when football was America's most romantic sport. The early sixties was the time when football defined the American Dream, that mythological impetus toward upward mobility within the middle class. Lombardi captures the historical turning point of that time, the 1960's, when the sports industry was headed from a romanticized pastime into something more commercially branded by the media. Vince Lombardi goes down into sports history as one of the most prolific coaches. As I sat within the audience, I felt transported back to 1965, gathered around the television or huddled in the bleachers.

Lombardi runs this weekend and next weekend. The Harbor Lights Theater Company has some impressive shows coming up including Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I. I am excited by the company's professionalism and look forward to seeing more versatile programming this fall.

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