Review: King Liz Scores Some Points Without Making a Slam Dunk
Fernanda Coppel's play is currently running at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.
Sabrina Sloan is a force of nature as the powerhouse sports agent Liz Rico in the West Coast premiere of Fernanda Coppel's King Liz at LA's Geffen Playhouse. Sloan struts onto the stage, jamming a rap intro, alerting the audience that all eyes will remain on her — and it's not an empty claim. Sadly, the performance doesn't receive the support it deserves from the script.
After 23 years in this man's world of sports agenting, Liz (Sloan) has reached a turning point. Her condescending, "fatherly" boss (Ray Abruzzo) hints at his retirement and his support of her as CEO, though the male board would rather bestow the honor on someone more junior but with a Y chromosome. He pressures her to sign a high school phenom, Freddie Luna (Evan Morris Reiser), despite the kid's inexperience and ugly juvenile record. Luna's stats have impressed all the agents, but Liz cuts the sweet talk and promises to always give him the truth, and in turn, make all his dreams come true. Liz does some finagling with the coaches during draft season and gets Freddie on the NY Knicks. Then she wraps the coach (Oscar Best) around her finger, and Freddie becomes a quick sensation … until his anger issues erupt.
Coppel's play focuses on many compelling subjects: the futility and inevitability of toxic masculinity, the insidiousness of males granting women a place at the table as if it's not an inalienable right, and the cruel nature of the press. All those concerns are brought up in the play, but none go beyond skimming the surface. They feel like check points to be green marker-checked while reading an essay. The characters have no room to breathe, to evolve naturally. They become pawns for the author's purpose, pure as it may be, instead of fascinating beings. In the final scenes, as the play devolves into melodrama, none of the empathy for the characters has been earned.
Director Jesca Prudencio keeps the spotlight on Sloan, a compelling actor who makes every word count. She conveys the cockiness and the insecurity underneath. The play's best relationship lies between Liz and her spunky assistant, played winningly by Michelle Ortiz. The pair's chemistry is delightful.
Reiser is problematic as Luna. He captures the hyperactivity of the kid in the candy store about to see all his dreams come true, as well as the certainty that it will all go away faster than it arrived. But many times, he stares out at the audience and loses concentration — the character fades and the actor visually acknowledges the audience members around him. It's subtle but distracting.
Prudencio choses a scaled-down set by Justin Humphries and subdued lighting by Rebecca Bonebrake, which seems visually odd based on the characters' opulence. These are people with penthouses on the Upper West Side. Their offices should be modern palaces, encapsulating their success. The projections with taglines for each scene and photos of the characters, comes off as cloying and counterproductive.
Sloan makes the title character of King Liz so enthralling, the audience has no choice but to root for her. It would have been intriguing to strip the men from the play and focus on the two women, trapped by a power struggle. The dynamics between female boss and assistant has always been fraught with fear of the limited number of chairs allowed at the table for women. The performances between Ortiz and Sloan displays hostility, but also compassion between the two, and would have been a fresh perspective in which the audience could invest. In its current state, King Liz is too superficial to be compelling and doesn't reveal the author's ideal scenario and perspective. What could have been a riveting study plays out as just a series of unfortunate events.