By Leigh Austin
At age 10, having spent countless hours navigating the digital Oregon Trail, I felt that I had the historical knowledge necessary to undertake a fictional narrative about the trials and tribulations of a family battling the great western migration. Needless to say, the end result was probably, looking back, not quite as realistic as I hoped.
The memory of my long-forgotten failed novella resurfaced, unfortunately, as I watched Windy City Playhouse’s latest production, King Liz. While playwright Fernanda Coppel’s writing is certainly more sophisticated (and crude) than my 10 year old ramblings, her portrayal of an insider’s account of the life of a high profile NBA agent comes across as equally misinformed; just as my Oregon trail characters were fraught with endless bouts of dysentery and outbreaks of cholera, Coppel’s plot includes so many dramatic (but predictable) twists and turns that the play can never capture the realism and heart that it so desperately seeks.
The story begins as agent Liz Rico (Lanise Shelley) works to secure a new recruit for the NBA, Freddy Luna (Eric Gerard). Luna has an incredible presence on the court, but he poses a threat off. A recent high school graduate with a rap sheet, his quick temper and naivete make him a gamble that Liz isn’t sure if she should bet on. Facing pressure from her boss Mr. Candy (Frank Nall), Liz takes the leap and signs on Freddy, hoping to secure his legacy, and hers, with her decision.
While the plot brings to the forefront important issues about race and women in the workplace, it’s heavy-handed approach to its characters and story diminish its effectiveness. Amidst the cheesy dialogue, though, Lanise Shelley still manages to shine as Liz Rico, bringing her best NBA-style Olivia Pope to the court. She may not be able to save moments like her initial entrance (which has her dribbling poorly whilst recounting her glory days as a basketball star--a poor directorial blocking choice), Shelley brings a level of sincerity and truth to her over-the-top character. Eric Gerard proves a worthy competitor for Shelley’s talents in his role as Freddy; though he lacks the height of an up and coming NBA star, Gerard captures Freddy’s youthful naivete and hunger for acceptance.
Less successful are performances by Jackie Alamillo as Liz’s ambitious assistant Gabby and Phillip Edward Van Lear as Freddy’s new NBA coach, but both performers have difficult roles to work with in terms of the text. Coppel’s Gabby has by far the worst dialogue and most over the top plot line, so it’s difficult to tell how much of the fault lies with Alamillo’s interpretation. Van Lear’s portrayal is limited too--his costumes make him look more like a high school gym teacher than a hot shot NBA coach, and his character arc does little to defy that image.
In short, Windy City’s Chicago premiere of King Liz is certainly not the slam dunk they were hoping for, but its talented main players at least prevent it from being a complete airball.
Performances for “King Liz” began May 24 and run through July 16. Press Nights for the production are Wednesday, May 31 at 7:30 p.m. and Thursday, June 1 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets ($15-$55) are on sale now and can be purchased at the Windy City Playhouse Box Office online or by calling the Box Office at (773) 891-8985.