PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Lombardi—Casting Coach

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Lombardi—Casting Coach Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of Eric Simonson's Lombardi, starring Dan Lauria and Judith Light.

Stars Dan Lauria and Judith Light; guests Michael Urie, Rachel Dratch and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell
Stars Dan Lauria and Judith Light; guests Michael Urie, Rachel Dratch and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Now that it could be told, Dan Lauria was telling it, only an hour or so after he had opened Oct. 21 at Circle in the Square in, and as, Lombardi—arguably, the most unexpected star-turn since Fiorello! brought us Tom Bosley.

"Really, I had an in," he admitted at the after-party at the newly refurbished Edison Ballroom (nee The Supper Club). "I'm the biggest Tommy Kail fan in the world, even before this, before Broke-ology and before In the Heights"—this would be the Thomas Kail who directed the play—"and, when he was broke, I gave him my apartment when I was in L.A., so it was Tommy who brought me in to do readings. He was honest with me. He said, 'I don't think you're big enough a name, but let's help raise the money for them, and I'll see what I can do.'"

It didn't hurt, of course, that Lauria bore a certain, bear-like, ballpark resemblance to Vince Lombardi, the legendary Green Bay Packers football coach being lionized by the play, and this physical similarity wasn't lost on The National Football League, who co-produced the show with Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo.

"Through the course of the readings," Lauria explained, "the NFL basically said, 'You know, he's Lombardi. Let's get the right actor.' You know how the business thinks. They gotta have Julia Roberts play Coach Lombardi—that sells more tickets—but this time they went with what they thought was the right actor."

In terms of researching the character, the actor found himself at long last on Easy Street. "I'd love to give you that actor answer about how hard it was," he said, "but I've never had more help. The NFL has been great. Any piece of footage I wanted, they sent it to me. If I wanted to talk to Bob Fortus, they'd say, 'Here's his phone number.' Everyone in the cast talked to the football players they played." Indeed, there were fleeting moments when the Edison's second-story press alcove, formerly known as The King Kong Room, had all the earmarks and bear hugs of a locker-room celebration—sans the spewing champagne and the protective goggles.

Dave Robinson and Jim Taylor, who memorably played for Lombardi and are depicted in the play, finally caught up with and congratulated their stage impersonators, Robert Christopher Riley and Chris "Sully" Sullivan—having only communicated with them previously by long distance.

"We talked over the phone about an hour a few months back," recalled Robinson. "He wanted to get some inflections of my voice, but he didn't know my characterizations, so maybe we'll get that today. I'm not disappointed with the way he played me, let's put it that way. I was very excited about the whole thing. The way they portrayed Vince and Marie was so exact and real I had flashbacks all evening, over and over."

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If the three actors passing for footballers on the stage pass convincingly, that's because they all three have sports backgrounds. "I played football for eight years in high school and at Lehigh University—I was a safety and a wide-receiver," relayed Riley, "but I found acting in my freshman year, and it pretty much replaced football. I figured that I could play a football player longer than I could play football."

He was right about that, and he Broadway-bowed in 2008 as the past-his-prime footballer who played "the cut glass punch bowl": "I understudied Terrence Howard in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, so I had a chance to do about 15 percent of the shows. Dave Robinson is the first role that's all mine."

Sullivan, a serious tennis player in college, brought dignity as well as bulk to the role that is marking his Broadway debut: "Jim Taylor, himself, was a man who was known for his integrity and known for his pride and his work-ethic, so it was really nice to play a man who was considered to be such an honorable human being."

Taylor, who makes a still-fit and rather handsome senior citizen, owned up to a heart-swelling pride at seeing his younger self trotting across a Broadway stage, but he felt he was seeing it in long-shot from afar. "Those days with Lombardi were 50-some-odd-years ago, you know," he pointed out. "I'm 75, and I'm watching a 27-year-old version of me do all that. But I must admit I really enjoyed the experience."

The third of the three real-life Lombardi musketeers depicted in the play, Paul Hornung, was scheduled for the opening, but didn't show. Bill Dawes, his young stage facsimile, had the situation already covered, though, having motored down to Louisville two months before rehearsals and had lunch with The Great Man.

"I got some great, fantastic stories about him and Lombardi," Dawes said, "so I had a leg-up when I started the first day of rehearsals. I don't know if it's good to admit this, but I'd never heard of him before I auditioned. But the cool thing about being an actor is, once you get some of these roles where they're based on real people, you can learn a lot. I ended up learning a lot about old-school football and Lombardi. I read David Maraniss's book ['When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi,' on which the play is based], and I learned a lot about Paul—more than I'd ever think I'd know about another person. To play him was a real gift for me."

Dawes played high school football in northern Virginia and, by his own admission, "wasn't very good," but he passes well in what he counts as his Broadway bow. ("My first professional gig was understudy in Sex and Longing. Once, I went on.")

The featherweight on stage is Keith Nobbs, playing a fugitive from the cerebral world—Michael McCormick, a Look Magazine sports reporter who has come to spend a week with Lombardi in Green Bay to gather information for an in-depth interview that may be just a little too deep for Lombardi's liking—this, circa November of 1965, just before the coach's historic run of championship seasons.

"It's the only fictional character in the play," Nobbs noted, "but it's an amalgam of a real character and a lot of Maraniss' book. My role helps gives focus to Lombardi's life and shows what a father figure he was to all of the players that he coached."

Dan Lauria and Judith Light talk about the man, the myth and the reality of Broadway's pro-ball protagonist:

 


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Lombardi is lit from within by a radiant, uproariously wiseacre performance from the lone female on the premises—Judith Light as Lombardi's Jersey-tough ever-lovin', Marie. It's no mean achievement, stealing the show with a wifely perspective, but she has been armed with a full quiver of zingers, and her flinty, deflective quips prove the perfect, deflating foil for Lauria's bombastic outbursts.

"I love her," Light admitted, arriving glamorously transformed for the after-party. "She's strong! She's powerful! She is inspired by someone else's vision—her husband's—and she really devotes herself to supporting him having that vision, and what that does is that her support of him took that team up to another level.

"She passed in 1982, 12 years after he died. She smoked, and she was a very heavy smoker. We don't do a lot of that in the play—for obvious reasons: We don't want to take that out on the audience in any way—but she died of lung cancer."

And not hepatitis? Light is discovered with a drink in her hand and rarely puts it down after that. "I haven't counted the drinks I have every evening, so don't make me count. Actually, it's all water and ice tea." Her precise comic timing is obviously intact, but the illusion of booze fuels the character's jaundice and caustic one-liners.

Director Kail confessed he got this job through The New York Times. "I happen to read the sports section before I read the arts section every day," he said, rather proudly for a Tony nominee. "Richard Sandomir wrote an article last November, and I emailed my agent and said, 'Look, I don't know who else is going to go in and meet on this, but I'd love to go meet Fran and Tony. I sat down with them and got to talk to them and the playwright, and I started working on it in January." Kail came to directing as "a failed athlete who took up coaching. Coaching and directing have always been very related to me. There are a lot of parallels. I felt like this was a chance to explore what I do while investigating Coach Lombardi's life."

There was no problem adjusting to the in-the-round demands of Circle in the Square; if anything, the theatre gave off the proper vibes of a football stadium, with the action centrally focused and scenery rising up out of the floor for scene changes.

"We actually had a proscenium when we did it out of town," Kail recalled, "so what we had a chance to do was explore the play, rehearse the play, work on the play—but we had to do a completely different physical production when we came to Broadway. We obviously learned a lot in that first process. We took some things with us and had to throw some of the things out. I enjoyed working in the round.

Eric Simonson
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"First of all, we had a play that fit perfectly in that space. Then we had a playwright—Eric Simonson—who has directed dozens of plays and is a very easy collaborator. When I go in and say, 'Hey, I feel like maybe this could be a shaft of light, enough to bring this up again,' he says, 'Great. Shaft of light.' So that allowed it to be fluid and to keep the momentum of the play going. Eric wrote a beautiful play, and we have six terrific actors who know how to tell the truth—and, when they tell the truth like that, you get those laughs and you get those other moments too when you feel that heartbreak, and I think that's a testament to them."

In the past 20 years, Simonson has been on Broadway three times, all in different capacities—first as an actor, doubling as a ranch bookkeeper and a car salesman, in 1990's The Grapes of Wrath; then as a director—and a Tony-nominated one—of 1993's The Song of Jacob Zulu, and now as a playwright. He has a couple of commissioned plays on the back burner; if these don't work out, he can always be Prop Master since all he needs is another profession to join the rarefied Renaissance company of Orson Welles, who did all those jobs and produced on Broadway, too.

A wry grin cracked Simonson's flatline persona at the suggestion of such a lofty association. His buttoned-down demeanor doesn't hint at the humor he has generously pumped into this play. A native of Wisconsin, he is not above self-depreciation—like the moment Marie breaks out the atlas to locate Green Bay.

Lombardi's daughter, Susan, led the parade of sports figures mixing and mingling with all the usual first-night suspects—such theatrical irregulars as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell with wife Florence, Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy, New York Giants co-owners John Mara and Jonathan Tisch, Lombardi biographer Maraniss and former New York Yankee Lee Mazzilli.

Although former Green Bay Packers Chuck Mercein didn't make the play's cut, he did show up for its premiere. It was his second viewing, and he had praise for Lauria and Light. His words: "Absolutely excellent. They really nail those parts."

Lin-Manuel Miranda, with the new Mrs. (Vanessa), and Priscilla Lopez showed up in support of their In the Heights director, Kail. Tyne Daly, who's bracing for a second workshop of her Broadway-bound Ballroom Nov. 8, flanked Charles Durning and a wheel-chaired Jack Klugman at a table near the entrance of the ballroom.

Also: Dan Grimaldi from "The Sopranos," Wendie Malick (returning next week for a second season of "Hot in Cleveland"), Graham Rowat and wife Kate Baldwin, Memphis scribe and lyricist Joe DiPietro, retired Pirate Queen Stephanie J. Block, comedienne Rachel Dratch, "Shooter" star Kate Mara with Max Minghella of "The Social Network," Tony Lo Bianco with wife Elizabeth (his new movie is "The Irishman"—and "I'm not the Irishman!").

A lot of the Light brigade—co-stars of the actress who count themselves as friends—showed up on opening night: Katie Finneran, who played Westport and Williamstown with her in A. R. Gurney's Children; Sarah Paulson, who had her for a mother in Off-Broadway's Colder Than Here (and Lauria for a father in a movie called "The Spirit"); Daryl Roth, who produced her Off-Broadway in Wit (as well as Lauria and Dawes in Ears on a Beatle); and Michael Urie from her Emmy-nominated "Ugly Betty."

When someone asked Urie what position he played in high school football, he shot back with "French horn—and I got to see a lot of football games that way, too!"


Bill Dawes, Keith Nobbs, Dan Lauria, Judith Light, Robert Christopher Riley and Chris Sullivan
Bill Dawes, Keith Nobbs, Dan Lauria, Judith Light, Robert Christopher Riley and Chris Sullivan
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