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Entertainment & Arts

Review: Larger than life character, small-scale ‘Lombardi’

“Lombardi” by Group Rep

Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi (Bert Emmett, center) struggles with his temper during an interview with cub reporter Michael McCormick (Troy Whitaker, right) as his tolerant wife, Marie (Julia Silverman), attempts to smooth things over in the Group Rep’s L.A. premiere of “Lombardi.”

(Doug Engalla)

Football may be a grandly theatrical sport, but its sweeping, corporeal drama doesn’t easily translate onto the small stage.

In the Group Rep’s production of “Lombardi,” three very large men — Christopher Hawthorn, Ian Stanley and Steven West — are obliged to represent the Green Bay Packers of 1965.

Padded and helmeted in green and gold, they toss a football around as the audience files in. They’re only a few feet apart, so the ball doesn’t have far to go. Their massive size, hoarse voices and bristling energy make the space feel cramped. I had the impulse to shout, “Boys! Take it outside.”

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Eric Simonson’s admiring bio-drama about legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi, which debuted on Broadway in 2010, is limited by this inherent claustrophobia. We’re so accustomed to the gladiatorial scope of football that we get restless in small rooms or on the sidelines.

In this L.A. premiere, director Gregg T. Daniel maintains a brisk pace and gets lively performances from his skillful cast but never persuades us that we’re watching anything but a stagy depiction of life.

The play’s clunky, anticlimactic story line is part of the problem. Bio-drama tends to lack suspense: We already know what happened. So we need to feel swept up by thrilling revelations about character instead.

“Lombardi” begins with a familiar premise: Cub reporter Michael McCormick (the likable Troy Whitaker) has been assigned to write a profile of Lombardi, who invites him into his house and onto his practice field just before the 1965 championship game.

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But Lombardi, still smarting from a recent hatchet job in Esquire, proves a prickly subject. He keeps declaring topics off the record and barring McCormick from talking to players, and he wants approval of the copy. Although their disagreement is the play’s only serious conflict, it feels oddly inconsequential and ultimately irrelevant.

Bert Emmett makes an amiable teddy bear of a Lombardi. His bluster and bombast fail to conceal his inherent kindness; even when barking “Shut up, Marie!” at his long-suffering wife (the charmingly dry Julia Silverman) or shouting insults at players, he comes off as lovably irascible rather than scary. Emmett’s impersonation is technically proficient — he’s got the mannerisms, the hat, even the gap between his teeth — but still perhaps a little studied. 

In any case, McCormick spends most of his time not with Lombardi but with Marie and the three representative Green Bay Packers, who divulge anecdotes in flashback. Some of these are illuminating — the moment Lombardi decided to make Jim Taylor a fullback — and some oddly anticlimactic, like the time Lombardi considered leaving football for bank management but then didn’t.

The many flashbacks demand continual changes to Chris Winfield’s simple set, but rather than feeling intrusive, these are some of the liveliest moments in the show. The football players do double duty as stage crew, talking as they shove the furniture around, sometimes running plays, sometimes chattering about cooking, conveying a lifelike atmosphere otherwise lacking in this production.

Although I was inclined to pity Marie Lombardi, who apparently spent her life mixing highballs while wearing cocktail dresses (by costume designer Angela M. Eads), I wouldn’t mind having a trio of strong guys always at hand to redecorate my living room.

“Lombardi,” Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 6. $25. www.thegrouprep.com or (818) 763-5990. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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