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Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2008

Larger Than Life

Theater Review

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   What's the difference between Vince Lombardi and a pit bull? A necktie. Bada-bum. Okay, the joke is starting to get stale, but the new play about former Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi is definitely NOT. Playwright Eric Simonson uses his considerable writing skills to reveal a side of the famous coach that few people knew. The results are stunning. The larger-than-life coach commands the Off-Broadway Theatre stage. Heck, he practically leaps into the audience's lap (don't worry, he doesn't actually do it. Remember, the Lambeau Leap hasn't yet been invented).

  Next Act Theatre can be credited for producing Lombardi: The Only Thing. In two fast-paced acts, the play outlines a key time in Lombardi's life, long after the Super Bowl years when things aren't going nearly as well.

  As the play opens, the team has just lost a minor play-off game, one of the setbacks that caused Lombardi to question his own commitment to the team. When he confides in an assistant coach, the startled man replies, "If you leave Green Bay, the fans here might march into Lake Michigan like lemmings."

  The play depicts a complete man, full of doubts and questions, who tries too hard to maintain complete control over his environment. In the play's early scenes, Lombardi exhibits the fury and swagger for which the coach was famous. As Lombardi, David Cescarini, Next Act's artistic director, handles this assignment with keen craftsmanship. In speech and manner, he does an excellent job of bringing Lombardi to life. His glasses, suitcoat and tie, and even his wavy, salt-and-pepper hair will seem eerily familiar to longtime Packers fans.

  One need not be a football fan to enjoy Lombardi, (although it sure helps). Even those who have never before heard Lombardi's name may be pleasantly surprised as the performance unfolds. Only those with an active distaste for professional sports (particularly football) should avoid Lombardi.

   For rabid Packer fans, Act Two might be less to their liking. It features a cleverly scripted fantasy sequence that blends living and deceased figures in Lombardi's life. We learn much about Lombardi's past as the characters banter while playing a game of sheepshead. The scene ends on literally a life-or-death moment for Lombardi. While pondering his next move, Lombardi is stunned to learn of his brief future (he dies at 57). Despite these dramatic scenes, it must be noted that the play has its share of humor, too.

  Act Two allows more opportunity for the supporting cast to show its versatility. John Kishline, John Phillips, Mark Ulrich and Emily Vitrano seem perfectly in sync with their various characters. Reese Madigan gives a moving performance as Paul Hornung in Act One and, in the second act, effortlessly becomes one of the most famous figures of the 1960s. Director Ed Morgan's staging allows the actors to move with utmost efficiency on a small stage. Authentic-looking costumes and topnotch lighting design further support the production.

  Runs through Oct. 26 at the Off-Broadway Theatre on North Water Street.