Theater Review: KING LIZ (Geffen Playhouse)

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by Tony Frankel on July 27, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles

A PLAY OFF

A rich, black, ball-busting pro-sports super-agent who has worked her way up from poverty to making partner at a major firm. The white male head of that agency who wants his protégé of 22 years to take over the company as he nears retirement. The agent’s put-upon ambitious Latina assistant of five years who is desperately ready to move up to the big leagues. The Black/Latino basketball teenage wunderkind with a past and a temper, newly signed to both the agency and the NY Knicks. The black coach of the Knicks who takes the newbie under his aegis, but with severe reservations. An unscrupulous TV interviewer who goes for the jugular.

Sabrina Sloan and Michelle Ortiz

Throughout Fernanda Coppel‘s play King Liz, now receiving a west coast premiere at The Geffen in L.A., following productions Off-Broadway and in Chicago, the well-drawn characters have clear-cut motivations and back story. The story arc is there. Current issues are there. Even some humor is there. All the pins are in place for a strike. Yet as diverting the play can be at times, this production ends up with a split.

Ray Abruzzo

The play, which has some crackling good dialogue, ends up feeling ill-shaped and shoehorned into 135 minutes, with unbelievable situations that need a better build-up (a romance, a press conference flare-up, and a tragedy all feel unearned). The program notes that King Liz has been optioned as a series, which makes sense because the script feels like an excellent treatise for a pitch meeting. It’s as if I were rooting for my sports team during a game, and then realized in the second half that there was no way they were going to win. That and kind of like watching the Hallmark Channel.

Ray Abruzzo and Sabrina Sloan

The sexy, curvaceous and powerful Sabrina Sloan makes the take-no-prisoners agent Liz Rico her own with an impressive array of emotions. From boldly assertive, competitive, and savagely ferocious when making deals to vulnerable when she begins to realize the cost of her power plays, the dynamic Sloan never falters. When Oscar Best appears as Coach Jones, furiously chomping gum as if gnawing on the legs of the Knick’s bigwigs to whom he must kowtow, the play bursts to life. Less successful later on is is world-weariness and need for connection.

Nancy Linari, Sabrina Sloan, Evan Morris Reiser, and Oscar Best

While his anger seems to usually come out of nowhere, and he lacks an inner life, Evan Morris Reiser is perfectly cast in demeanor and looks as the NBA phenom. A scene with him pacing in his hotel room in nothing but a towel distracted in a good way (but Liz laying in bed next to him felt out of place). Ray Abruzzo thankfully underplays the smarminess of the agency’s founder, Mr. Candy, see-sawing between boss and wannabe friend to Liz. Nancy Linari practically steals the show in a cameo as a deceitful TV interviewer; she delivers newspeak patois with uncanny flair.

Nancy Linari and Sabrina Sloan

While Michelle Ortiz is likeable as assistant Gabby Fuentes, her comedy seemed out of place. While I frankly believe she was miscast, there were many moments that simply fell flat in her sit-com approach. There was some good chemistry between Sloan and Fuentes, but the latter had an acting style unmatched by any of her co-performers. She wasn’t helped by director Jesca Prudencio, whose blocky staging lacked sharpness and comic timing. Worst of all, Ms. Prudencio didn’t give her actors a much-needed nuance and layering (Ms. Sloane did that on her own, thank you very much).

Evan Morris Reiser

Also not helping were the distractingly cheap technical elements (which I also attribute to Prudencio more than the theater being economical). A backdrop one would see at a press conference permeated the entire show. Justin Humphres‘ set of a super-agent’s office could have been a car rental location, and a cheap hamburger joint looked too cheap to be a cheap hamburger joint. Nothing looked used and there was very little detail (even most of the drinks lacked ice). Rebecca Bonebrake‘s lighting flooded both the offices and the audience too often. The most successful was Devario D. Simmons‘ costumes, especially in the brand name designer wear (although you would think the assistant, as broke as she was, could find more stylish attire).

Theater like this sure could use an assist right now.

photos by Jeff Lorch

King Liz
Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, 10866 Le Conte Avenue in Westwood
Tues-Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on August 14, 2022
for tickets ($30.00 – $129.00), call 310.208.2028 or visit Geffen Playhouse

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