There's a note in playwright Fernanda Coppel's bio that mentions King Liz has already been sold to Showtime, to be developed as a half-hour TV show. After seeing the smart, sharp story of a woman scoring big in the traditionally testosterone-ruled world of sports, it's not surprising that the well-written piece is a hot commodity.
At Amphibian Stage Productions, it all hinges on Kenneisha Thompson as Liz Rico, an ambitious sports agent who's worked like hell to finally have the throne within reach. Her boss (a blustering big shot played with panache by Bob Hess) is readying for retirement, and plans to leave his agency to the top-producing and top-performing Liz, whose client roster is a who's who of sports royalty.
Liz's long-suffering assistant Gabby (Olivia de Guzman, who expertly restrains from showing her character's hand too soon) sets the tone for us by executing a typical morning routine with serious Devil Wears Prada vibes. She scurries into the office, places her boss' coffee just so on the desk, changes into power heels, and then starts a beat to which Liz enters, throwing down raps to pump herself up.
It's an entrance that director William "Bill" Ray lets build to a crescendo, showing us from the start the massive amounts of confidence and swagger that Liz possesses. It also quickly shows off the sleek set designed by Seancolin Hankins, which works beautifully well with Jon Felt's lighting (look for the faint outline of a basketball court on the floor — it's a subtle but effective detail). David Lanza's sound design plants us in locker rooms, press conferences, and courtside, letting our imaginations fill in the visual clues.
The NBA draft is quickly approaching, and Liz has a troubled-but-talented high-schooler named Freddie Luna in her crosshairs. As Gabby is invited to finally watch Liz close a deal, first securing Freddie's signature on a contract and then convincing the New York Knicks to take him with their first pick, we too get to watch this smooth operator do her thing. Thompson amps up her already considerable charisma here, manipulating Luna and the NBA coaches with a mixture of business savvy and genuine charm.
What Coppel rarely does — and thankfully so — is make Liz use her sexuality as a bargaining chip. This character may be more successful than everyone else in the room, but she relies on intelligence and experience rather than her feminine wiles. Even her wardrobe from costumer Aaron Patrick DeClerk is a sensible yet stylish array of button-downs, trousers, and shift dresses, all grounded by authoritative heels.
That's not to say Coppel doesn't explore the more tender side of Liz, and it's those scenes that give Thompson something extra to chew on. Freddie's new coach (a straightforward Sam Henderson) reveals himself as Liz's sometimes lover, and their awkward dinner date forces Liz to reflect on her choice to pursue business over a family. It doesn't get too preachy, but instead allows Thompson space to experience a range of emotions.
Telvin Marjuan Griffin also avoids being boxed into a stereotype, though his Freddie could easily be just another entitled jock with anger issues. Griffin keeps Freddie's insecurity and immaturity simmering just below the surface, so that when he does go off, it feels earned instead of cheap.
Have you waited this long for the Jerry Maguire comparisons? Congratulations, here they are: Yes, both properties follow a cocky sports agent who topples because of their difficult star client, but King Liz eschews the schmaltzy rom-com subplot in favor of a more nuanced dive into how its main character ticks. It shows us the person, instead of simply the money.
Amphibian Stage Productions' mounting of King Liz runs through August 5.