So if you’re a theatre nut, and you’re going to Cleveland anyway, you have to go to the Cleveland Playhouse, right? It’s legendary. It was “America’s first professional regional theatre,” founded in 1915. It has a national and international reputation, right? And they even used to accept unsolicited original script submissions from playwrights outside Ohio. Ah well … No more. But I decided I had to go anyway, and ordered up a ticket for “Lombardi,” which had a short run on Broadway a year or so ago.
Two years ago, the Cleveland Playhouse moved from its historic Philip Johnson-designd uptown location into the old Allen Theatre in downtown Cleveland’s Playhouse Square (which incidentally is not a square). The Allen was an opulent old 3,000 seat movie house before the Playhouse built several stages into it, including a beautifully designed 500 seat modern auditorium. And more are on the way. But they have retained the historic lobby, a, two-story gilt-covered rotunda, lined with dark wooden columns, and surrounded by magnificent murals and intimate balconies. I have to say that the lobby was the high point of my evening.
I might have been alone in that attitude. The vast majority of the apparently appreciative audience was made up of male football fans and self-appointed experts of the game, all chattering with their loyal, long-suffering wives as if they were in Lambeau Field and expected to explain the plays. I’m sure they loved the play when they weren’t busy checking their cell phones. … You can probably tell already: This wasn’t my night.
Oh yes. … The play? It was written by Eric Simonson, based on the book, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vincent Lombardi, by David Maraniss. Simonson decided the best way to tell the story of this American icon was to invent a cub reporter from Look Magazine to narrate the whole thing frontally to the audience. Oh and then play out some short scenes from the story in random order, when “necessary.” The scenes are mostly two-person conversations in which, for our benefit, the characters tell each other stuff they would obviously already know. Any possible nuance, subtlety or rhythm go under, overwhelmed by Lombardi’s well-known brash bluster. Neither I nor apparently the actors could find much subtext to be explored. It may not have been their fault. Given the material, it’s hard to get away from all that shouting. And after all, the show just opened last week. By in large the cast seemed … competent, so…. Okay, so there were a few really good zingers, and maybe a dozen good laughs in the whole 90 minutes, separated for no good reason by an intermission.
The staging doesn’t help the actors any more than the writing. There is a pool game in which nobody plays pool, and there is an elaborate electric stadium scoreboard that looked borrowed from a high school gym, and that sat unused until the end of the play. Scene changes rely on one computer-driven wagon which scoots on and off from the same location carrying various location settings. And there is one hole-in-the-stage elevator from which Lombardi emerges from the floor like a bronze statue in the opening scene, the best in the play. Apart from that, characters run on one side of the stage, deliver a brief conversation or a monologue to the audience, and run off the other side. It’s all very two-dimensional, in all senses of the word. The play purports to be relevant to us all, to dig into family relationships, current political and social issues, and pride, excellence, and the notion of winning. Ideally, by revealing Lombardi’s inner being, it might also have revealed our own inner beings to ourselves. However, neither the script nor the production has anywhere near the requisite depth. Of course, if it did, it might embarrass all those football fans in the audience who admit to no emotions other than a winning cheer, a losing disappointment, and some healthy lust for women and booze.
Cleveland is football heaven, and I did have the strong feeling that the fans loved this play. On the other hand, I admit to being more interested in seeing the theater than the play. In fact, I was somewhat surprised to see so many empty seats on a Friday night in Cleveland’s best known theatre. Or was I? Possibly the play ran as long as it did in New York (244 performances before an early closing) merely because the Green Bay Packers had again won the Super Bowl. Or like the fictional Look Magazine reporter, we all just wanted to find out what made Lombardi tick, and why and how he became an American super-star. I don’t think any of us did.