In a vigorous but uneven "Lombardi,'' which opened on Broadway Thursday night, a sparkling moment shows New York Giants assistant coach Vince Lombardi and his wife, Marie, mulling Vince's chance to become head coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers.
Judith Light powerfully plays the rueful Mrs. Lombardi as a boozy football widow resigned to missing the big city as they head toward pro football's tiniest town.
Locating an atlas, she archly asks Vince the location of Green Bay.
"Wisconsin,'' he replies.
"Where is that?'' she says.
Alas, not every scene is so snappy as Dan Lauria offers an inconsistent portrayal of an iconic leader in American sports history. His Lombardi emerges less defined than those around him and less present than his era of a half-century ago.
"Good night,'' he says in the play's final line. "That is all.''
It is not quite enough, although "Lombardi'' as a whole effectively evokes the mood and mentality of the early 1960s in both the National Football League and the Latin Mass culture of American Catholicism that shaped Lombardi's personality.
Vince goes to church every morning, quotes St. Paul's epistle to the Corinthians, praises Jesuit education and reflexively makes the sign of the cross. His curse words are "Christ Almighty!''
"God, family and the Green Bay Packers are the most important things in his life,'' Marie tells the young reporter Michael McCormick (Keith Nobbs). "But not necessarily in that order.''
A witty script gives her a dozen droll lines. At one point, Light literally rolls her tongue inside her cheek. Inside a cloud of cigarette smoke, wearing fur and high heels, she gives Marie a tipsy dignity.
Another impressive performer is Bill Dawes as running back Paul Hornung, a charming rogue.
Dawes' body language, even when standing relatively still, blends the aggressive dexterity of an athlete with the easy grace of a dancer. Dawes overplays the role -- beautifully.
His Golden Boy drinks from a silver flask and flashes a smile out of "Cool Hand Luke.'' But Lauria, a convincing Lombardi visually, displays the coach's famous temper in a way that is too cartoonish.
His angry domestic outbursts resemble Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden in "The Honeymooners'' or Caroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker in "All in the Family.''
Some less bombastic moments fare worse. One problem may be that "Lombardi'' -- based on the acclaimed biography "When Pride Still Mattered'' by David Maraniss -- is presented in the round at Circle in the Square.
This hurts a poignant late-night scene with Lombardi speaking philosophically to the reporter (for Look magazine). In an apparent slip of the tongue, Lombardi addresses McCormick as "Vincent,'' the name of Lombardi's absent son.
But it is difficult to hear these soft words from all seats surrounding the stage. The play's conclusion -- a Lombardi soliloquy -- is a goal-line fumble.
Lauria's Lombardi is more convincing when interacting with players. He leans forward at the waist, jabs his finger and shouts to bully, charm and inspire them.
A smiling Lombardi gently rubs the big shoulders of Jim Taylor (Chris Sullivan), a headstrong fullback who backs the fledgling union movement in pro sports.
"We see the money coming in,'' Taylor says, "but none of it winds up in our pockets.'' The current NFL faces a possible labor lockout next season over collective bargaining.
Another societal reference comes from the union-rep Dave Robinson (Robert Christopher Riley), an African-American linebacker who shoots pool with his teammates in a local bar.
"This place is open to both Negroes and Whites,'' Robinson tells the reporter.
Where it works, "Lombardi'' conjures, without too much sentimentality, the early Pete Rozelle era, before the Super Bowl.
It was a "Mad Men'' age of skinny neckties, highballs at Toots Shor's and John F. Kennedy in the White House as a youthful commissioner mixed network television with vivid personalities like Lombardi's to build a show-business empire.
It was hardly an age of innocence. There is a blurry allusion to Hornung's gambling suspension. But this was decades before players failed steroid tests or got accused of sending pornographic messages on cell phones.
The play has the backing of the NFL. An associate producer is John Mara, Jr., of the family that owned the Giants then and still does, in part, now.
Even with some prices more than $100, a ticket to "Lombardi'' is cheaper than a plush chair in a luxury suite in a new stadium -- and you don't need a personal seat license.
It is performed as one act (no halftime intermission). In previews, audiences responded with sincere cheers. At the least, on a night without an attractive game on television, "Lombardi'' should entertain a fan in need of a football fix.