“The most perfect imperfect man I ever met” is the description cub reporter Michael McCormick (Troy Whitaker) gives of Vince Lombardi (Bert Emmett) in Eric Simonson’s play about the NFL coaching legend. The play, which ran on Broadway in 2010-2011, focuses on one week during the 1965 football season during which McCormick comes to Green Bay, Wisconsin, from New York to interview Lombardi for a piece he’s writing for Look magazine.
McCormick stays with the Lombardis and has numerous conversations with Vince’s wife Marie (Julia Silverman), as well as with Packers players Paul Hornung (Ian Stanley), Dave Robinson (Steve West), and Jim Taylor (Christopher Hawthorn). Through those conversations and accompanying flashbacks the character of the man, for whom the NFL’s Superbowl trophy is now named, is revealed. His “freedom through discipline” mantra comes through loud and clear, as does his temper—transmitted in a voice that “could raise the dead,” as Hornung puts it. Even Marie chides Lombardi, saying that he “never talk[s] in a normal voice.”
Yet in many ways his abnormal voice turns out to be a positive, as we come to find out that Lombardi refuses to engage in the racial discrimination of the time, making sure all his players are treated equally both in town and on the road. His own dealings with prejudice due to his Italian heritage seem to be the source of his sensitivity to such matters. His Jesuit background may also inspire his fair-mindedness, even as it remains the wellspring of his authoritarian adherence to rules.
Lombardi's complex character is brought to life by director Gregg T. Daniel and the talented cast. Daniel’s use of the players as stagehands during transitions, when they call out football plays while moving furniture, is a clever device, as is Chris Winfield’s set of “chalkboard walls” covered in X-and-O diagrams, which surrounds the characters and reminds us that football remains omnipresent in their lives. Daniel also employs a 1940s-style patter in the dialogue, which feels apropos to the period and keeps the show humming at a brisk pace.
Emmett captures Lombardi’s depth with a captivating blend of stentorian rigor and quieter introspection. Silverman, as his better half, showcases both the patience of a saint and the droll wit of a New York dame.
Simonson’s smart writing foreshadows many issues that the NFL has come to deal with in the intervening decades, but with a light enough touch that, even for non-football fans, the show remains a fascinating exploration of a man who became a myth.
GO! Lonny Chapman Theatre, 1900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood; through September 6. (818) 763-5990. www.thegrouprep.com