As Browns fans, we've seen it all before. First down: off-tackle run right for two yards; second down: off-tackle run left for one yard; third down: complete pass for five yards, short of a first down; fourth down: punt.
That isn't just a summary of the Browns offensive brilliance for the past decade. It's also a workable metaphor for Lombardi. the flaccid play about a renowned football coach that's now occupying the Cleveland Play House stage.
Predictable and ineffective in myriad ways, the script by Eric Simonson feels like a dated, timorous and worshipful after-school special spiced up with cocktails and shouting. Even a competent cast can't lessen the tedium of listening to way too much hardass coach-speak and precious little insight about what made this legendary (and significantly flawed) man tick.
Vince Lombardi was the coach of the Green Bay Packers from 1959 to 1967, winning an astounding five championships in those nine years. It was during one of his non-winning seasons, in 1964, that the Browns won the last major pro sports championship this town has seen.
The loud and pugnacious Lombardi might indeed be fodder for a great play, but this ain't it. Indeed, the playwright makes a couple of structural decisions that fly in the face of competent storytelling.
First, the play is set in 1965, after Lombardi has already established himself as an iconic football guru. Thus, we don't experience, except in a quick flashback, how this long-overlooked former assistant coach in college and the pros almost immediately turned a perennial doormat into an alpha-dominant NFL franchise.
Second, the play centers on a fictional cub reporter for Look magazine, Michael McCormick. He serves as the narrator, visiting frozen tundra-ville to get a story about the coach. Not only does this device shift focus away from voluble Vince, it leads to a plethora of Q&A scenes that are about as compelling as most jock-sniffing sports interviews. With aphorisms piled upon maxims, and mottos entwined with adages, the mind begins to reel, then slowly shuts down entirely.
It doesn't even help when three of the more famous Packer players show up. Party-boy halfback Paul Hornung (Branton Box) is a bore whose randy exploits all happen offstage, and African-American linebacker Dave Robinson (William Oliver Watkins) has little to do other than represent Lombardi's race-free evaluation of talent.
The most promising of the three is Jim Taylor, a dour and uncomplicated man who advocates for sports agents representing players. But as Taylor, David Hardie is mostly just sullen and unresponsive, missing much deeper layers.
Helpfully, things spark to life a bit when Mrs. Lombardi enters the fray, martini always in hand. Played with an icy and dry wit by DeeDee Rescher, Marie Lombardi is often quite amusing, even if her laugh lines are sitcom-slick.
In the hopeless role of McCormick, Nick Mills asks his questions and drags in a lame subplot about the issues he had with his daddy, who was also a journalist. As if we might possibly care.
All we want to know about is the non-fictional guy, Vince the Victorious, and that's where the play ultimately face plants. Playwright Simonson never pulls the protective helmet of image off Lombardi, settling for murmurs of praise from all his admirers/punching bags.
Given such paltry material, director Casey Stangl is confined in a tight box. Still, she shanks a chip-shot field goal by allowing Bob Ari's Lombardi to go soft, lacking the truly acidic intensity that terrified his players (and which should, ideally, astound the audience). As a result, when he finally does display warmth, the contrast isn't as startling and revealing as it might be.
Lombardi as a drama is a two-act parade of halfhearted three-and-outs. And we've seen enough of those in this town.