Playwright Fernanda Coppel has latched onto a hot topic in Second Stage Uptown’s “King Liz” — the alarming under-representation of female agents in major-league sports, and the formidable social, political, and economic obstacles they have to overcome to swim in the company of those high-grossing sharks. The scribe has also been gifted with a top-notch cast headed by Karen Pittman as the title monster and Jeremie Harris as the young basketball prodigy whose life she damages for her personal ambitions. But the dramaturgy is woefully shaky, with over-the-top characterizations and unforgivable lapses of basic logic.
Pittman (recently on Broadway in “Disgraced”) is a feast as Liz Rico, a ferociously ambitious sports agent who clawed her way to the top by being tougher and more ruthless than the male competition. “I lie, cheat, and steal for my clients,” she boasts. And you know she means it literally.
For the past 22 years, Liz has done the heavy lifting for the Candy Agency, and now that Mr. Candy (an avuncular Michael Cullen) is retiring, she’s expecting to be made CEO — to be declared king of the world she feels she’s conquered. But the timorous Board of Directors are pressuring her to land one more multimillion dollar player for the agency roster before they take the big step of conferring that crown on the head of a (horrors!) woman.
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So it’s crunch time for Liz when she hears of a high-school basketball player with amazing stats who could very well land that job for her.
Being black and coming from the same ghetto background as Freddie Luna (Harris, brilliant in the role), Liz knows exactly which buttons to push to win the kid’s trust and get him to sign on the dotted line. That cat-and-mouse seduction scene, beautifully played by both actors, is the best, most honest moment in the play, and would be better if Liz’s wingman (played with a bit too much gusto by Irene Sofia Lucio) weren’t in it.
But that’s as subtle as it gets in this overwrought drama, which director Lisa Peterson has pitched a couple of levels too high, too broad, and too loud. Making a good case for a rewrite, Liz is a remarkable character and Pittman has both the commitment and the stamina to take her on. The actress looks fantastic in her professional power outfits (provided by Jessica Pabst) and she prowls the stage like a tigress, giving vivid, caustic demonstrations of how she “lies, cheats, and steals” on her own behalf as much as her clients’. (When it’s suggested that she sing to an anxious client to calm his nerves, she snaps at him to “take a Xanax, like a grownup.”)
But Liz’s incessant braying, bragging and bullying becomes grating and finally feels phony. And although Harris couldn’t be more likeable as the naive rookie who can’t control his temper, that naivete, like Liz’s flamboyance, is seriously overdone.
Here’s where the breakdown in logic does its damage. Is there really a kid — especially one with a juvie record — who grew up in foster care in the roughest neighborhoods of New York who can’t figure out why his violent outbursts on national television are a game-changer? Or why the Knicks are less than thrilled when he knocks down their coach in public?
Liz’s mentoring efforts are as artificially pumped up as Freddie’s ignorance. She keeps nagging the kid to trust her, only to abuse that trust. She’ll take the time to explain why he shouldn’t have blown off a meeting with someone who was offering him a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal. (He couldn’t figure that one out for himself?) But she never tries to show him how to behave outside the narrow world of the projects where they both grew up. There isn’t a single scene in which she takes the kid home for dinner or sits him down and talks to him like a real friend — except when it’s too late.