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Theatre in Review: King Liz (Second Stage Uptown)

Karen Pittman, Jeremie Harris. Photo: Carol Rosegg

King Liz is a play about professional basketball, and Karen Pittman is its most valuable player. As the title character, a sports agent, Pittman, last seen as a devious dinner party guest in Disgraced, is a tidal wave of ambition, sweeping up everyone in her wake with no regard for the collateral damage. Pacing the stage like a panther, a Bluetooth headset permanently attached to her right ear, she cuts deals for her clients and cuts everybody else down to size. Her code of ethics is clear: Lie, cheat, and steal if you must, but get the money, on the most favorable terms. As she repeatedly notes, failure is not an option.

Liz has good reason for having acquired such cheerfully cutthroat ways: A black woman who grew up in the ghetto, she clawed her way out of poverty, attending Yale and discovering her knack for scorched earth business tactics: Over two decades, she has racked up $900 million for her clients, landing on the Forbes 50-most-powerful-women list. Is she lonely at the top? Not really. When a colleague (and occasional bed partner) has the temerity to suggest that she pursue something more meaningful, adding that he would take good care of her, she cheerfully dismisses him as a "bottom" and gets right back to negotiations. For Liz, the only real happiness is the kind you can take to the bank.

Not caring a whit if the audience likes her -- the highest praise I can give an actor -- Pittman invests Liz's soulless, conniving ways with a turbocharged vitality that makes her endlessly fascinating. This is a woman who, from the moment she awakens in the morning, is playing a role she has invented for herself. She's the star of her own show, and she barely tolerates the supporting players. (Notice how her face goes slack when she has to listen to someone else for more than 30 seconds.) Whether engaging in brass-knuckle phone negotiations, reading the riot act to a new client, or coolly appraising the betrayal of a close associate, Pittman is the white-hot center of King Liz and you daren't take your eyes off her, even for a second.

If Pittman provides sterling support for Fernanda Coppel's play, the favor is not always returned. The plot of King Liz turns on Freddie Luna, a high-school basketball wunderkind who is also a hot box of trouble. A kid from the Brooklyn projects with a deported mother, a splintered family, several years of foster care, and a rap sheet for assault and battery that has left one victim missing an eye and another permanently in a wheelchair, Freddie is nevertheless coveted by Mr. Candy, Liz's boss, who is convinced the boy can be turned into the next LeBron James. Also, Mr. Candy is retiring and, it is broadly hinted, if Liz lands Freddie -- whom he sees as his legacy acquisition -- the head office at the agency will be hers.

Liz takes up the challenge, which provides the first act of King Liz with most of its crackle. Freddie, who is being chased by every agent in town, thinks he has already landed on easy street, and he's not about to be snowed. "You're a little shrimpier than your pictures," says Liz at their first meeting. "You're a little older than your pictures," he replies. Liz nevertheless cows him into submission with stories of other young prodigies who, thanks to their personal problems, flamed out before their first season was over. She lands Freddie a berth with the Knicks, but, as the team's coach warns, Freddie's inexperience and ungovernable temper spell trouble. When he explodes at a press conference, pushing the coach to the floor, Liz goes into overdrive in an attempt to salvage Freddie's career.

It's at this point that King Liz starts to unravel. Coppel wants us to believe that Liz breaks her own rules, identifying too closely with Freddie's struggles, but the playwright simply hasn't laid the groundwork to make us believe in this sudden burst of empathy. As Liz becomes obsessed with Freddie's career, neglecting her star roster of clients, the action becomes less and less convincing, climaxing in a television interview that disintegrates into an on-air melee that beggars belief, triggering a melodramatic denouement that, unconvincingly, suggests that a kinder, gentler Liz is in the offing.

Still, under Lisa Peterson's direction, the best parts of King Liz are full of electricity, especially a beautifully staged sequence in which Liz and Gabby, her assistant, handle a flood of telephone calls while simultaneously keeping tabs on a television broadcast of the NBA draft. And the rest of the cast is aces, beginning with Jeremie Harris as the talented, unstable, all-too-often-furious Freddie. Michael Cullen is properly oily as the manipulative Mr. Candy. ("I named my daughter after you," he assures Liz. "Her name is Cynthia," she replies.) Russell G. Jones adds a welcome note of sympathy as the Knicks coach who takes one look at Freddie and sees disaster looming. Irene Sofia Lucio is steadily amusing as Liz's long-suffering assistant, who openly yearns for her boss' job. Caroline Lagerfelt nails her cameo as a Barbara Walters-style interviewer, who earnestly clasps her subject's hand before going for the jugular.

Peterson has also overseen an agreeably slick production led by Dane Laffrey's set, which depicts Liz's office and yet easily and quickly adapts to several other locations. (The upstage panels, showing a basketball player in various stages of a layup, are an especially pleasing touch.) Tyler Micoleau's lighting aids enormously in creating a different atmosphere for each scene. Jessica Pabst's costumes are full of telling touches: Note the preppy suit Freddie wears for his interview, a touch calculated to make him look less threatening, and Gabby's newly acquired power wardrobe near the end of Act II. Darron L. West's sound design combines hip-hop music with traffic noises, the sounds of a street basketball game, a television broadcast, the voices of reporters, and other helpful effects.

Second Stage Uptown is a place for talented young writers to leave their calling cards, and King Liz is good enough to make Coppel, who has had one other major production, at Atlantic Theater, a name to keep an eye on. But more to the point, it announces that Karen Pittman is ready to take on any leading role producers care to throw at her. She is just a step or two away from stardom. -- David Barbour

(3 August 2015)

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