Jerry Maguire, hang up your cell phone; Ari Gold, park your Ferrari. Make room for the super sports agent of “King Liz,” portrayed vibrantly by Karen Pittman in a new play by Fernanda Coppel at Second Stage Theater. Liz Rico starts her day lip-synching to Notorious B.I.G.’s Juicy:
Now I’m in the limelight ’cause I rhyme tight
Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade
Born sinner, the opposite of a winner
Remember when I used to eat sardines for dinner…
Like many a rapper, and some of her star athlete clients, Liz grew up in the projects, “on mayonnaise sandwiches and sugar water.” She pushed her way to Yale and is now the rich, hard-charging head of the “NBA division of the top sports agency in the country,” as her boss Mr. Candy puts it. Mr. Candy is retiring and he’d like Liz to run the whole agency, but the board has a problem with her “people skills” (possible translation: that she’s a woman), so he persuades her to try to sign a new client that Mr. Candy thinks will become a huge star, thus quieting the naysayers. The client is 19-year-old Freddie, a high school basketball star from the projects of Red Hook. Freddie has amazing athletic skills. He also has a criminal record.
At their first meeting, Liz doesn’t so much woo him as warn him: “This business is a graveyard of talented promising players.” But she also makes him a promise: “I will fight for you to be successful the way I fought for myself to make it in this world that doesn’t want people like us to succeed.”
Where “King Liz” goes from there is not completely predictable, but it does more or less follow one of the two conventional paths of sports dramas. This is not the convention that ends in a tense-filled but ultimately triumphant game. (It doesn’t even try to depict the game on stage — unlike, say, “Magic/Bird” which projected video footage of actual basketball games. The closest we get to the game of basketball in “King Liz” is watching Liz’s reaction to an unseen game that’s on TV.)
This is the other conventional sports narrative – the cautionary tale. Freddie is, as his new coach initially predicted, too emotionally immature to handle the pressure and attention of a pro ball career. Freddie’s first outbursts are dramatic, and exciting, but there reaches a point where we start to question Liz’s much-vaunted judgment and savvy – and eventually we start to question the playwright’s choices.
But if the ending isn’t satisfying and the resulting moral somewhat muddled, there are two aspects of “King Liz” that make it worthwhile theater. The play offers insight into the ways that race, gender, class and age complicate ambition, power and success in our culture. This is done subtly and effectively through Liz’s interactions, not just with Freddie but also in her condescending behavior towards her long-frustrated and super-efficient Latina assistant Gabby (Irene Sofia Lucio), her often-toadying behavior towards her well-meaning powerful white boss Mr. Candy (Michael Cullen), and her love-hate-power-shifting duet with Coach Jones.
And those relationships are rendered credible, amusing, and moving by a uniformly terrific cast. Jeremie Harris does wonders with Freddie, the swaggering athlete who is far closer to child than man — when he’s nervous, he drinks chocolate milk and asks for Liz to sing to him in Spanish the way his now-deported Venezuelan mother used to (Liz gets her assistant Gabby to do so.) Russell G. Jones as the coach of the Knicks is so good that he sometimes feels like the emotional center of the play – and when he reveals something deeper than friendship for Liz, you not only believe it, you hope that Liz will reciprocate. Even Caroline Lagerfelt manages to pull off a completely believable TV host clearly modeled on Barbara Walters, resisting what must have been an overwhelming urge towards skit-like parody.
The greatest glory in “King Liz” is reserved for the title character, and Karen Pittman does her full justice. Pittman portrayed a reserved, somewhat snooty lawyer in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning play “Disgraced.” That was a far more high-profile drama than “King Liz” will probably wind up being, but the newer play affords the actress a chance to be foul-mouthed, hyperkinetic and harshly in-your-face just like every sports agent you’ve ever seen depicted (are they really all like that?) and also earthy, vulnerable, lonely and full of regrets – simultaneously a colorful character, and a shaded one.
Second Stage Theatre Uptown
2162 Broadway (76th Street)
By Fernanda Coppel
Directed by Lisa Peterson
Dane Laffrey (scenic design)
Jessica Pabst (costume design)
Tyler Micoleau (lighting design)
Darron L. West (sound design)
Michael Cullen (Mr. Candy), Jeremie Harris (Freddie)
Russell G. Jones (Coach Jones)
Caroline Lagerfelt (Barbara Flowers)
Irene Sofia Lucio (Gabby)
Karen Pittman (Liz)
“King Liz” is scheduled to run through August 8.