‘King Liz’ in San Jose makes most of its shots


Liz Rico smolders in her white power suit, a New York sports agent rocking a thick heel, wiping the court floor with any man dumb enough to play her straight up.

The hottest client roster? She’s got it. Endorsement deals with the hottest brands? She’s got those, too. Sitting courtside next to the highest-profile hardwood wives? Ayesha Curry, you have a neighbor.

So why can’t she stop fouling out of the game?

Fernanda Coppel’s “King Liz,” now playing in San Jose with a basketful of Easter eggs for hoop fans to devour, dives into the cutthroat multimillion-dollar world inhabited by coaches, agents and others whose futures are determined by talented but tempestuous teens who can’t seem to avoid personal off-court disasters.

The City Lights Theater Company production is delectably smooth, with many fine moments harnessed together to craft a narrative offering plenty of poignant humor.

Sports agent Liz (Damaris Divito) does not lack for confidence, plying her trade in a man’s world, even if she has to work doubly hard to get folks to take note. Even her boss Mr. Candy (Ray Renati) carries heavy skepticism about the long-range shots she’s trying to knock down. But his trust is paid off mightily when she lands the biggest fish in the Brooklyn pond — a talented but raw player named Freddie Luna (Davied Morales).

Freddie is all lip but has the game to back it up. But he is learning that high school — where he collected triple-doubles nightly — is not the NBA. And no amount of bravado can make Freddie into a world class professional hooper overnight.

Kinan Valdez’s deft direction moves at a deliberate pace, with a great attention to details giving the piece authenticity and humor. He has assembled a skilled cast, but the scenes with Divito and Morales carry the play’s greatest urgency.

Valdez is assisted greatly by his technical team. Carsten Koester’s lighting design has some sneaky touches that capture the nature of suffocating press conferences. Scenic designer Ron Gasparinetti and artist Kisti Christensen’s all-encompassing court is solid. And sound designer George Psarras, who greatly understands the quirky City Lights space, dots the landscape with authenticity.

The play’s urgency heightens as Liz realizes she’s out of her depth when it comes to dealing with Freddie’s needs. He’s young with a juvenile criminal record, and the opposition to Freddie’s rising stardom is growing at arenas everywhere.

Coppel’s script offers plenty of moments of funny, piercing wisdom when it comes to society’s relationship with athletes who are capable of superhuman feats. The idolatry placed at the feet of the problematic Freddie, exposed incessantly by everyone around him, does him no good. Morales does a good job finding Freddie’s arc without delving into cliches of the tortured athlete.

Where Coppel’s script has its biggest issues is in how it leans into the fantastical. There is nary a hint of self-interrogation within Liz. Yet as the dynamics shift toward disaster status with Freddie, only then does she display regret, so we know empathy lives within her somewhere. The disconnect between her ascension and the heart she attempts to corral feels forced. The ending backs the characters into a corner with a highly unsatisfying resolution.

Despite those faults, the play works on many levels. The humorous Fred Pitts as the acerbic and honest coach delights. Caitlin Papp’s turn as a television host allows her to show off some comic chops. Renati provides chuckles as the big boss, giving off all the anxiety that comes with running a business full of those he feels are beneath him. And Alycia Adame is adept at scene-stealing, playing the bubbly assistant Gabby, responsible for calming Liz’s nerves and cheerleading her victories.

Divito has the responsibility of range, and is comfortable in both worlds. Her Liz doesn’t enter a room, but rides the gust of air that shoves her through the doors. Whether playing confident or vulnerable, she moves through space with purpose, and her reaching a zenith with Freddie proves torturous.

And as a woman and African American, Liz provides a critical perspective, with race and gender serving as topics the play handles well.

Despite some missed free throws and a few airballs, many of King Liz’s shots are nothing but net.

David John Chávez is chair of the American Theatre Critics Association and a two-time juror for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (‘22-‘23); @davidjchavez.


By Fernanda Coppel, presented by City Lights Theater Company

Through: April 21

Where: City Lights Theater, 529 S. Second St., San Jose

Running time: 2 hours with an intermission

Tickets: $28-$67; cltc.org

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