King Liz, the new production at Windy City Playhouse, will make you laugh, make you sigh and make you think, on several levels. Directed by Chuck Smith, the play is the story of Liz Rico, a high-powered female sports agent who runs the NBA division of a top sports agency.
You’ll laugh because Fernanda Coppel’s script has plenty of humor, both real and rueful. You’ll sigh because, if you’re a woman, you’ve made your way through some of the same minefields Liz navigates, like your boss telling you to smile more and be more sociable. And you’ll think, because the story line will make you ponder how we treat young athletes who see pro sports as a way out of their life of urban crime and poverty.
One of those young men is the temptation that’s served up to Liz (Lanise Shelley) by her boss, Mr. Candy (Frank Nail), who founded the agency and is thinking of retirement.
Mr. Candy offers this: “High school guard out of Brooklyn. Athletic freak. He’s got a jump shot as pure as the Holy Grail. He’s got the flashy passing of Chris Paul and is as quick as Derrick Rose off a dribble. Dynamic dunker. Ball handling capabilities of Isaiah Thomas…. We gotta sign him now.”
And he points out that she needs a home run to impress the board, when they make the decision on his replacement as CEO. Because he’s retiring and she is not on the top of the board’s list.
Mr. Candy reminds her, “There’s the intimidation factor. It’s not the first time I’ve had to talk to you about your people skills . . .. If you just smiled more, made more of an effort to be cordial to people, I think it would make a difference.”
Liz replies, “This company is 95 percent men and men are scared of me. How is this my problem?”
Keeping Liz organized and focused is her hyper-efficient assistant, Gabby (Jackie Alamillo), who envisions herself becoming a super-agent like her boss. Liz’s calls and meetings name-drop all the top names in the business—owners, coaches, former coaches and players.
The high school guard out of Red Hook is a cocky kid named Freddie Luna (Eric Gerard). He and Liz both started in the projects; but Liz went to Yale and Freddie has a criminal record. They meet and, although there are some rough edges on their relationship, Liz agrees to handle him. (“This business is a graveyard for talented, promising players,” she tells him, pointing out he’ll have to work hard and pay attention to his coach.) Freddie is drafted by the Knicks in the first round and coach Jones (Phillip Edward Van Lear) becomes part of the picture, unsure that’s he’s going to be able to shape up Freddie as a starter.
Freddie hits a three to win an early-season game. In the post-game news conference, reporters ask about his criminal record and Freddie explodes at the reporters and attacks Coach Jones. Freddie’s career goes downhill from there.
Players who become stars out of high school are a short list: Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy O’Grady, Lebrun James, and a few more. In real life, Liz’s best advice for a kid like Freddie would be: Go to college. Pick a school where the basketball coach cares about players’ academic work as well as their on-court success. But that wouldn’t be in the agency’s economic interest.
Chuck Smith’s direction makes King Liz as fast-paced as an NBA game. Shelley’s performance as Liz is riveting and fierce. Nail turns in his usual excellent performance as Mr. Candy and Alamillo shines as Gabby.
Technical details of the two-hour show (one intermission) are all handled smartly. Scene changes are punctuated with flashing lights and percussive music. Jared Gooding is responsible for lighting and Thomas Dixon for sound design. The clever set design by Courtney O’Neill features Liz’ office on one side and a versatile playing area opposite that changes from café to apartment to office with the rotation of one wall. As you enter the theater, you feel you are entering an arena as you walk between high walls that border the seating areas.
Fernanda Coppel is a playwright and screenwriter. King Liz and her other play, Chimichangas and Zoloft, both premiered off Broadway. There were reports in late 2015 that she would adapt King Liz as a Showtime series.
King Liz continues at the Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Rd., through July 16. Tickets are $25-55 for performances Wednesday-Sunday.
Tender ears note: The script is full of f-bombs, all relevant and natural dialogue in the sports setting.