The miniature locker room off to one side of Mosaic Theatre's stage looks every bit like a museum piece, festooned with Super Bowl pennants, Green Bay nameplates and scuffed cleats, and preserved for transfer to the NFL Hall of Fame, where waxen Packers will stand chiseled in pregame ritual.
This attention to minutia defines Mosaic's visual approach for Lombardi, Eric Simonson's fresh-off-Broadway drama about a week in the life of legendary Packers Coach Vince Lombardi. The sets at Mosaic are usually ravishing, but this time, designer Douglas Grinn has outdone himself, transforming the smallish space in the American Heritage Center for the Arts into the aforementioned locker room, an office, two semicircles of domesticity, a pub, and, centrally, a gridiron battleground illuminated by stadium floodlights. There's even a JumboTron hanging from the ceiling, projecting highlights from the Packers' video archive.
All of which goes a long way to orient theatergoers to a subject — professional football — that attracts a different demographic from the average play. On Broadway, Lombardi ran for 244 performances; the New York Times reported that the show never even regained its operating expenses. Here, though, the result has been counterintuitive; what at first seemed like the riskiest venture of Mosaic's current season began selling out before the first performance. It certainly helped that Artistic Director Richard Jay Simon snared Ray Abruzzo as the legendary coach; the actor is nationally recognized from his recurring role as Little Carmine Lupertazzi on The Sopranos. That the play opened last weekend amid the Penn State sexual-abuse scandal didn't hurt either; the scrutiny of iconic football coaches (like Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky) is on everyone's radar.
Lombardi is set midseason in 1965, when greenhorn sportswriter Michael McCormick (Antonio Amadeo, in customary reporter's garb of fedora and overcoat) arrives at Lombardi's home to profile him for Look magazine. He warms to Vince's eternally patient wife, Marie (Laura Turnbull), and tries in vain to interview three of his star players, while every confab with Lombardi himself is a volatile tête-à-tête. The more Michael strives for journalistic objectivity, the more Vince tries to wrest control of the article as a P.R. piece for himself. Meanwhile, occasional flashbacks provide glimpses into Lombardi's life before the Packers (he once considered becoming a banker!) and show his tense first encounter with his players.
As Green Bay players Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung, and Dave Robinson, the supporting cast of Skye Whitcomb, Scott Douglas Wilson, and Donte Fitzgerald are fine, and Turnbull is a consummate actor incapable of even a mediocre performance. But as the title suggests, this is Abruzzo's show all the way, and the play can't help but sag a little when Lombardi is offstage.
With a Method-like ability to disappear into the role, Abruzzo acts possessed by the very spirit of Lombardi himself, his blood streaming green and yellow. He plays Lombardi as a sleepless tycoon, his brow forever furrowed; even his restive state is one of tightly wound agitation. His dialogue escapes him at its own frantic pace, that of a wayward jazz soloist or a sputtering machine gunner whose spewed invectives pierce like bullets. In some ways, his mercurial nature resembles another bigger-than-life historical figure from the recent stage, Red's Mark Rothko, but without the cultural snobbery.
To watch Abruzzo navigate through this volcano of a man is to look beyond football; we could just as easily be absorbing the mindset of a maniacal general, a paranoid politician, or a tyrannical film director. In both its casting and staging — Lombardi is often positioned on elevated platforms, to give the diminutive coach authority over his tall players — the show communicates the intimidating reality of living under a dictator.
That said, Michael's stated reason for writing the article is to "find out what makes Lombardi win," and I'm not sure the playwright, Simonson, ever rises to this daunting challenge himself. Some things can't be explained through formulas, bumper stickers, or journalistic summations. We see Lombardi explain his signature formation on a chalkboard, and Simonson hammers home the coach's unyielding perfectionism in his script, but the nuts and bolts of Lombardi's remarkable success remain nutted and bolted inside his perpetually active brain, where neither reporters nor playwrights are granted entry.