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King Liz

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Karen Pittman and Jeremie Harris
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Not just women and not just African-Americans—people in general don't get much more powerful than Liz Rico. She's the superstar agent for The Candy Agency, one of the biggest and most powerful firms handling sports players. Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, and James Harden are all under her representation, and she's made uncountable millions for them, the Agency, and of course herself. But could it be that Liz is discovering that there's more to life than fame, fortune, and unmatchable influence, now that she's reached the near-top of her profession and views her domain from her Upper West Side penthouse apartment?

Such is the question dominating King Liz, Fernanda Coppel's new play at the McGinn/Cazale as part of the Second Stage Theatre Uptown series. And it's one, by the way, that's less shallow than it at first appears. Liz (Karen Pittman) is not a child of privilege. She was born and raised in the projects and got her start at The Candy Agency 23 years earlier because Mr. Candy (Michael Cullen), then an agent, was willing to take a chance on her ability to rise above her upbringing. It's paid off in a big way, and Liz has been determined to keep it that way, despite the difficulties her latest target presents.

Freddie Luna (Jeremie Harris) is a gifted basketball player just out of high school ("These are Lebron James's stats, right?" Liz asks upon first viewing them), and is being courted by all the bigwigs. But Liz, knowing that like her he's from a difficult background (his mother was deported to Venezuela, and was split up from his brothers and sisters in the foster care system), she thinks she's best positioned to offer him the stability and the chance he needs to make a name, career, and a new life. He's a bit on the raw side—niceties, in front of her, in front of his coach, or in front of the press, are not really his thing—but Liz has cracked harder nuts, and she's positive she can tame him and make him the next Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett.

Coppel reveals, with well-greased but sharp-edged efficiency, that the path isn't quite that easy. For her impenetrable outer coating (she has no kids and can hardly maintain relationships; "It never works out, so I stopped trying," she admits at one point; "I'm married to my clients"), Liz has a soft heart and an agenda of her own that create a blind spot at the most dangerous imaginable place for Freddie. As he spins more and more out of control, trying to make his difficult and unfamiliar new situation work, so does she, and that leads to a cascade of changes that no one involved can easily predict, let alone stop.

Because there are no technical matters or "big games" to keep track of, Coppel is able to keep focused on the people about whom she's writing, and that pays intriguing dividends as the evening unfurls. All of the characters, who also include Liz's masterful but ambitious secretary, Gabby (Irene Sofia Lucio), the Knicks' Coach Jones (Russell G. Jones), and the insipid television talk show host Barbara Flowers (Caroline Lagerfelt), play crucial roles in reflecting Liz back onto herself, and helping her see how her successes and failures alike compound over time.

Karen Pittman and Jeremie Harris, joined by Irene Sofia Lucio
Photo by Carol Rosegg

The result is a firmly packed, but never dense, portrait of a woman who's sliding into stereotype after busting every imaginable one on the way up. But if, at a certain point, Liz's trajectory displays the full arc of its tragic inevitability, the journey to that point and beyond is neither boring nor predictable. Coppel's quick-witted, whip-cracking dialogue, and marvelous direction from Lisa Peterson (on a super-smart, radiantly modern office set by Dane Laffrey), ensure that things always unfold on exactly the time frame they should, without sacrificing tension, suspense, or theatricality along the way.

This is a play where some of the most absorbing scenes are in the second act—a television studio, a hospital, a professional conversation between two friends that's loaded with anguished subtext—so there's no question that she's going full-throttle right to the end. And, unlike her previous New York outing in 2012, Chimichangas and Zoloft, you don't sense that she's bitten off more plot or thematic significance than she can chew. This is a fine work you don't need to be a sports fan to enjoy or relate to.

Pittman, perhaps the brightest highlight of both New York productions of Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced, vanishes into Liz, letting us see how this sophisticated, self-reliant success story is still an insecure, poor girl at heart. Liz isn't a lie, but she is a construction, if one that Pittman insists we also see as real despite the artifice. If her portrayal is not entirely free of affect (Pittman occasionally strains, particularly in the early scenes, at projecting Liz's confidence), it's nonetheless a sparkling anchor for the rest of the play, and one that satisfies from her first appearance to her last.

The acting is otherwise more uneven. Cullen does well balancing the business-minded and lightly (potentially) prejudicial personality of Candy, and Lagerfelt is a starched scream as Barbara (not too subtly invoking, and not affectionately, another of the Walters variety). Jones, on the other hand, is acceptable if overly reserved in his somewhat functionary role; and Lucio and Harris both have their moments, but not enough of them, as though they're struggling to keep up with Pittman and her supercharged character.

They might very well be. Liz brings that out in people, in no small part because she's determined to bring it out in herself. Seeing how that's a flaw as well as a virtue is one of the chief joys of King Liz, but not because it lets us see how a titan of her particular industry stumbles and threatens to fall. No, it's the way she learns that sometimes you're able to attain and maintain the most power by letting go. It's a hard lesson for her to learn, as it is for anyone. But, thanks to Coppel, Pittman, and Peterson, it's as entertaining, sobering, and instructive as it could possibly be.

King Liz
Through August 8
McGinn-Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway at 76th Street, 3rd Floor
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