Saturday, November 9, 2013

Lombardi at Ocean State Theatre Company

By Richard Pacheco
The Ocean State Theatre Company’s production of “Lombardi” offers a lot of potential. “Lombardi” is a play by Eric Simonson, based on the book “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss. Simonson is an Academy Award winning writer. Vince Lombardi is a folklore sports hero, larger than life. This is the New England Premiere of the play. But the production ultimately falters and fails for a variety of reasons.
Simonson created an earlier version of the play entitled “Lombardi: The Only Thing”, which was produced in 2007 by the Madison Repertory Theatre at the Overture Center in Madison, Wisconsin. The play then had a successful run at the Next Act Theatre in Milwaukee in 2008. After some interest surfaced in a Lombardi play for Broadway, Simonson developed an entirely new play leaving only one five-minute scene from the original script. “Lombardi” officially premiered on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre on October 21, 2010, after previews beginning on September 23.The creative team included direction by Thomas Kail, sets by David Korins, costumes by Paul Tazewell, and lighting by Howell Binkley. This production was produced by Tony Ponturo and Fran Kirmser. “Lombardi” closed on May 22, 2011, after 30 previews and 244 performances.
Lombardi as  pictured in the play, is a brash, self-absorbed, ill tempered, controlling and overbearing man obsessed with football at the loss of his humanity towards others whether wife, who is always drinking, or his players or the reporter who comes to do a story on him. Robert Jeradi is Lombardi, a man with focus on football and not much else. He is obsessed with the game almost to the exclusion of everything else in his life. Jeradi is on the mark as a loud, brash, bullying coach, typical of the era. He struts around with Lombardi’s energy and zest. Ultimately the character is unlikable, not the performance.
Joel Kipper is Michael a young reporter who shows up in Green Bay to do his dream story on one of his idols, Lombardi. He is energetic, full of youthful enthusiasm and conviction. He is determined to get the story of a lifetime for a sports writer of the era. Kipper is likeable and charming, full of youthful zest and focus. He is very sympathetic.
Jennifer Byrne is Marie, Lombardi’s wife. She is long suffering and drinks too much, usually has a martini in her hand and drains it swiftly before getting another. Yet she loves her husband even though he constantly yells at her and berates her, often telling her to “shut up Marie.” Byrne is winning as Marie, a woman of great patience, loyalty and stick-to-itiveness.  She is poised and restrained in the role, a woman who survives and loves with all her heart. It is very convincing.
Barthelemy Atsin is Dave Robinson pro football hall of famer and football player extrodinaire. Robinson is the player representative. Atsin is pleasant and amiable in the role, but ultimately not totally convincing as a football player.
Todd Berkich is Paul Hornung the pro football hall of fame running back. He is down to earth and no nonsense. He is hard drinking and plays off the field as hard as he plays on the field. Berkich is gruff and friendly in the role, making the most out of his party character and yet making him down to earth and a serious as well. Yet he too doesn’t quite carry off the football player thing convincingly.
Thomas Schario is Jim Taylor, the pro football hall of fame running back, who as a player is unhappy with the circumstances under which they play, including pay and free exhibition games, but doesn’t let it dampen his love for the game or his efforts. Schario is energetic and determined in the role, but not totally convincing as a football player.
Outside of not finding Lombardi a very sympathetic character despite a strong performance, other things bothered me about the production. For example, the football players did not move like football players. There is a certain carriage and gait football players have which was absent here and dented credibility. While there were strong performances by the three main roles, the play ultimately proved unsatisfying. While Lombardi’s accomplishments as a coach are undeniable he was not per this play a very likeable man.
Director Aimee Turner seems out of her league with this one, not really able to get what she needs out of her cast. While the performances from the three main characters are fairly solid, there seems to be something missing to evoke more empathy for Lombardi, which might indeed be firmly embedded in the play itself as well as the character.  After all the play didn’t even run a year on Broadway. There has to be some reason for that.
Kenneth Martin’s scenic design was simple and usually effective as he evoked the Lombardi living room with a few pieces of furniture. He used the same minimalist approach to the behind the football scenes as well. The only thing I found disturbing was in between scenes there was a very abstract pattern resembling stones cast high up which seemed to make no sense, had no rhyme or reason.
For me it was all ultimately unsatisfying despite some strong performances. I did not feel much for Lombardi, did not like him very much all the while respecting what he accomplished as a coach, but he seemed too much like a bully to me.
The production continues at Ocean State Theatre Company.
"Lombardi" (6 - 24 November)
@ 1245 Jefferson Boulevard, WARWICK RI

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