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Coach's team fumbles the ball in 'Lombardi'

Dan Lauria plays the title character in

Dan Lauria plays the title character in "Lombardi", a new drama which looks at iconic Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi. Credit: Ari Mintz

There is probably a built-in audience for "Lombardi," the by-the-numbers biographical play that marks the National Football League's debut as a Broadway co-producer.

That niche had better be a big one. For someone not previously enthralled with Vince Lombardi's famous winning streak as coach of the Green Bay Packers in the '60s, the only compelling part of Eric Simonson's untheatrical script is the mystery of what it's doing on Broadway.

The problems have nothing to do with the good cast, which includes Dan Lauria as the gruff obsessive with the soft heart, Judith Light as his crusty but devoted wife with her busy liquor cart and Bill Dawes as Paul Hornung, one of three players in a vague subplot about nascent players' rights. Thomas Kail, who directed "In the Heights," almost turns the Circle in the Square's difficult dimensions into an advantage, using projections to make the stage seem like both a stadium and a modest pop-up home.

The stage is set, and the conclusion foregone, when a green reporter (Keith Nobbs) from Look magazine tells us the background - how Lombardi came to the losing Packers in 1959 and produced two back-to-back NFL championships (1961 and '62; they won their division but lost the championship in 1960). We enter in 1965, after two years of second-place finishes. Or, as Lombardi says with eye-rolling self-seriousness, "Second place! I would just as soon die!"

You see, Lombardi - or at least the one Simonson has shaped from David Maraniss' biography - turns out to be surprisingly unquotable for such a legendary inspiration. His first speech to the depressed Packers is, "With every fiber of my being, I'm going to make you the best football team that I can make you!" Later, he says "Nobody's perfect, but some of us strive for it!" Even his most famous quote, "Winning isn't everything - it's the only thing," was something he heard from someone else.

Lauria's Lombardi convincingly bellows, barks and clutches his stomach (foreshadowing the colon cancer that killed him in 1970). He also tries to intimidate the reporter, who strains to write more than a puff piece while living in Lombardi's house. There are seeds of an interesting play about the changes in sports journalism, though the name-dropping of sports writers from the '20s is awfully inside-football for such generalized entertainment.

WHAT "Lombardi"

WHERE Circle in the Square Theatre, 50th Street west of Broadway, Manhattan

INFO $115; 212-239-6200;

BOTTOM LINE Too inside-football for Broadway


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