Talking with Next Act's Lombardi (pt.1)
Backstage at the Off Broadway Theatre there was a sense of anticipation. There was a coat rack in the rehearsal space with a distinctive-looking hat and coat on it. There was an old desk onstage. In the middle of that desk: an unmistakable pair of glasses. Tonight, Next Act Theatre previews its production of playwright Eric Smonson’s Lombardi: The Only Thing. The comic drama based on the life of sports legend and Packer coach Vince Lombardi debuted in Madison last year. The Next Act production has a newly revised script and Next Act’s Producing Artistic Director David Cecsarini in the title role. Some time ago, I had a chance to talk with the show’s director Edward Morgan, Cecsarini, and actors John Kishline and Reese Madigan prior to a rehearsal of the newly revised play:
Edward Morgan: . . . There are LOTS of changes [to the script], but a lot of it is clarity . . . clarity of the character’s point of view.
David Cecsarini: . . . and deepening of the arguments . . . just really fleshing out what the major points are. It was a little sketchy and disparate in the original production. We’ve really focused that and honed it . . . so that people can really latch onto it, because I couldn’t when I saw the show last year. The great things about it were the realistic scenes that he’d created . . . There’s Lombardi and there’s Jim Taylor and there’s Hornig! It was chilling!
Me: And I guess the big . . . now I’ve never seen the play or read the script. The big issue for me just thinking about it in advance: you’ve got a really realistic beginning and everything and then at some point towards the end, he’s playing a game of Sheepshead with Kennedy and his father and St. Ignatious. How do you bridge . . . [fantasy and reality] . . . there?
John Kishline: We don’t want to give THAT away.
Cecsarini: Eric has done that. We’ve made it easer for people. I think we’ve made a more crossable bridge. First by changing the structure of it . . . by moving the airport to the beginning of Act Two because the airport is the beginning of where the consciousness shifts. And that’s done much more clearly now and incrementally—one step at a time. And we’ve also figured out with Harry Lombardi (the father) with Red Blaik his former coach and John Kennedy—they have alternate roles in this environment. And what Ed Morgan’s really been doing is honing the roles that these people play from the perspective of Vince’s vision. It’s Vince’s vision—Vince’s dream—whatever. And we’ve really focused that. Keeping in mind that this is a fantasy somehow generated from Vince’s mind and experiences.
Morgan: There’s an old tradition in literature including A Christmas Carol and The Wizard of Oz which involve journeys to another world or another consciousness. It’s a dream--it’s a vision it’s whatever. . .in which a person has an experience that changes their life. And often it happen at a crucial point in time. Eric has set up a terrifically crucial time in the career of Vince Lombardi and the arc of the great Packers championship run. After winning two [championships] then losing two ad before winning the big three—winning the first two super bowls. So it’s right on the cusp of that. He’s having a crisis of leadership and that evokes this dream—this vision and the people who come to him are people who are particularly important to him in his life—symbolically or literally. Red Blaik and his father literally. John Kennedy—he knew him, but it’s a little more symbolically and St. Ignatious was the founder of the Jesuit order—the Jesuits ran Fordham. He attended Fordham and applied a lot of the Jesuit philosophy into his living and his coaching—so it becomes a meditation on leadership. It becomes a discussion or a debate about leadership—about winning and the value of winning in football in a highly theatrical imaginary context, but it’s still about them and I thin Eric didn’t want to write a tribute to Vince Lombardi he wanted to . . . think about winning and Vince Lombardi is the icon of winning.
Me: David, you’ve played some pretty iconic character types in the past—an FBI Agent, a Viet Nam vet, a prison inmate and here you’re playing an actual historical figure with a really highly recognizable name. How does that change your approach to the character.
Cecsarini: Well, I have a specific model to study. Not only for internal values and historical perspective, but externally—there’s a guy, there’s a face, there’s a style of speaking, there are mannerisms—how he walks and talks . . . so I’ve studied that to some degree . . . I don’t study it anymore or I just touch on it here or there and make sure to set it aside because I have to remember: Vince was 5’8” he was 210—215 [pounds] he was a thick man, he had a big head, he had a resonance that I don’t quite have and can’t quite get to. So I have to be satisfied that Cescarini’s attributes are going to be enough for this theatrical depiction. So I’m there with the other guys—with Paul Horning and Jim Taylor and it’s all a tacit agreement that we can be that on the stage here. But we’ve gone as far as creating a wig and some make-up. You get to a certain point to study the real people and then you need to set them aside and accept what you have and the blend of that.
Me: Is that limiting at all for you creatively? Because you’re playing somebody who everybody has a really specific idea of.
Cecsarini: Well, I depend on the script to give me the right things to say and the sense of things being right and tinkering with that here and there, but Eric has gotten the voice pretty good. It actually gives me creativity through discipline. You have somebody to study. You have that and you still have the play to insert him in and the real life thoughts and circumstances that Eric gives him. So it allows me to base my creation on something with a firm foundation.
Morgan: I think it’s enriching more than limiting. Bottom line: we’re not doing the realistic Vince, we’re doing Eric’s version, but we have all of The Real to draw from. You’re always doing the playwright’s version of a Viet Nam Vet, or a prisoner or whatever and in that case, you’re still looking for parallels from real life. But you’re not always sure that you’re drawing from the same creative source as the writer. There’s an approximation. There’s a mix and match. You’re trying to get whatever you can to feed into the thing to make it real. In this case, the source material is obvious and therefore there’s a direct line between—okay he’s based his Vince Lombardi on Vince Lombardi, so there’s a lot (then) to pull-in.
Kishline: He’s been dead for forty years, too. [Lombardi] was a myth before he died and he’s become a larger one since. There are certain things that are true and certain things that were maybe not so true that you think of when you think of with Vince Lombardi. So you can mix and match and choose.
Me: And you’re playing [JFK] correct?
Kishline: No. I’m playing Red Blaik and Phil Bengston.
Me: oh. OK.
Morgan: He’s not good-lookin’ enough to play him.
Kishline: Way too old.
Morgan: No, he’s perfect for Red Blaik.
Cecsarini: Y’know, when I’d watched the Madison production, the guy that played Vince Lombardi for them was a really good character actor, but he didn’t have a strong resemblance to Vince, but vocally he was good. So my initial reaction was, “that’s not Vince.” But over the course of it, in going through what Eric had given him and speaking the way he did and his mannerisms . . . I came to accept that perfectly well. And I think I can get there and I think I’m working on a much closer physical resemblance than their guy had. So that gives me a certain security . . .
Morgan: It’s not impersonation. It’s a representation. It’s acting. Y’know, impersonators—that’s a particular thing. And this is acting. But he’s gonna be great. You’re gonna buy it.
NEXT: More from Edward Morgan and the cast including Reese Madigan