The impulses that drive fiercely ambitious people are many and varied, and while there are rewards aplenty for those few who succeed on a grand level, the price exacted for such success is often far greater than expected. In some cases the very drive that got them to where they are has turned them into nothing less than all-consuming monsters.

‘KING LIZ’
Highly recommended
When: Through July 16
Where: Windy City Playhouse,
3014 W. Irving Park
Tickets: $15 – $55
Info: (773) 891-8985
www.WindyCityPlayhouse.com/King-Liz
Run time: 2 hours with one intermission

Ambition, in all its many guises, is key to Fernanda Coppel’s play “King Liz,” now receiving a rip-roaring production at Windy City Playhouse where director Chuck Smith, fresh off his brilliant work on “Objects in the Mirror” at the Goodman Theatre, is demonstrating that he can finesse a complete tonal flip with immense flair.

“King Liz” takes its title from the edgy nickname for Liz Rico (Lanise Shelley), a supremely high-powered (and physically stunning) New York sports agent for the NBA who also happens to be an African American woman – to be sure, a rare demographic in that mostly white, male-dominated field. Determined to become the new chief executive of the company for which she has worked for more than two decades, she risks everything by recruiting Freddie Luna (Eric Gerard), a raw but impressive talent just out of high school, who comes with a troubling record of violence that includes time spent in a juvenile detention center.

Lanise Shelley (from left), Jackie Alamillo and Eric Gerard star in “King Liz” at the Windy City Playhouse. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Clearly there is something beyond Freddie’s talent that drives Liz to nab him a $17 million contract with the Knicks. Like him, she grew up in the projects and had a hard-scrabble early life, although she went on to college, and worked her way up the corporate ladder at the company run by Mr. Candy (Frank Nall). Along the way she also turned herself into quite the terrifying diva.

Liz may treat Gabby (Jackie Alamillo), her invaluable, exceptionally skilled, underpaid (and ambitious) young assistant, quite abominably. And she may reject the attempts at closeness offered by Coach Jones (Phillip Edward Van Lear), a divorced middle aged man with whom she will have sex, but nothing more. But she seems to have infinite patience and compassion (as well as some ferocious tough love) for the defensive, volatile Freddie, who she obviously senses is not all that far from who she was at his age, and who might well be a substitute for the children she never had. And even when he screws up monumentally at his first press conference, she uses her connection with Barbara Flowers (Caron Buinis), a respected TV talk show host, to help stage manage a quick reversal of fortunes for him. Of course Flowers didn’t achieve her success in the media by soft-balling her interviews.

Awash in fast, furious, angry, competitive, sexy, profanity-laced dialogue, the play turns somewhat melodramatic in its climactic scenes (the details of which I will not divulge here). But the actors are in total control, and Coppel’s style is one of heightened intensity (as opposed to office realism) from the start. As for the playwright’s decision to have Liz rant about racism in pro sports, it feels somewhat at odds with the multi-million dollar contracts being offered to so many athletes. Yet what saves the play from feeling glib or simply overheated is that beneath the surface drive of its characters is a yearning for something deeper – for the kind of love, trust, recognition and acceptance that transcends the standard trappings of celebrity and wealth. Coppel also suggests that the very same qualities that can drive people to achieve can also drive them to self-destruct.

As Liz, Shelley (a striking woman who can rock a pair of black leather pants as easily as a white mini dress) blasts her way into action, and is as unrelentingly strident, yet subtly vulnerable, as she must be. Gerard is spot-on as the lost adolescent who holds fast to his own code of ethics, but who cannot control his temper or adjust to the spotlight that comes with a sudden mega-career that is beyond all imagining.

Alamillo, playing something of a modern day version of Eve Harrington (from “All About Eve”), is wonderfully fast-talking, observant and earnest, suggesting she knows just which lessons to take from “her master,” but also how to be herself. Van Lear, too, has nailed the role of the coach who desperately wants to keep his job. And he and Shelley turn a dinner scene in a restaurant into an acting master class.

Nall brings just the right paternalistic quality to Mr. Candy, and Buinis is a neat mix of Judy Woodruff and Barbara Walters.

The spacious Windy City Playhouse is unique among Chicago storefronts, and set designer Courtney O’Neill (a recent winner of the Michael Maggio Emerging Designer Award), has cleverly devised three distinctly stylish playing areas for this show, with Jared Gooding’s lights and Thomas Dixon’s sound design providing flash in just the right places. Elsa Hiltner’s off-the-rack costumes fit the characters to perfection in this fast-paced Darwinian tale that seems custom-made for the current moment.