Sports can bring us together, fuel our frustration, broker unexpected friendships, and expose cracks in our social and cultural history.
In King James — now making its world premiere at Center Theater Group’s Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles as part of a co-production with Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theater Company — sports, specifically basketball, is all these things and more.
From Pulitzer finalist Rajiv Joseph, King James is a parable of male friendship forged through a mutual love of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Joseph uses LeBron James and his career moves (Cleveland rookie, defection to Miami, and return to Cleveland) as a framing device for an unlikely friendship between writer Shawn (a luminous Glenn Davis) and Matt (a wry Chris Perfetti).
Craig Schwartz Photography
When Shawn comes to Matt’s work, a wine bar, the two begin a dance of one-upmanship and connection as Shawn tries to talk Matt into selling him his remaining Cavaliers season tickets for a reasonable price. As they peel back the layers of the other, they hit it off, ultimately sparking a friendship that then mirrors James’ career, as Shawn decides to leave Cleveland to pursue his writing dreams of him.
Perfetti and Davis are superb, and their chemistry is immediate. While Shawn is thoughtful and gracious, Matt is insecure and entitled — it doesn’t seem like much to forge a bond with, but in their performances, it’s easy to see that instant connection and the pull of understanding and fraternity that keeps drawing them back. to each other.
Davis is striking in his stillness, his excitement or anger (mostly at LeBron) all the more powerful in the moments he erupts. He lends Shawn a gentleness that underscores the character’s inherent melancholy. Shawn isn’t so much lonely as he is used to being alone, a fact that makes his ups and downs with Matt all the more poignant.
Perfetti, who plays well-intended but exhaustingly woke up Jacob on ABC hit Abbott Elementary, walks a tightrope of sullen selfishness that masks a deeper loneliness and hunger for relationships. Matt is, to be honest, not the most likable guy (nor does he need to be), but Perfetti imbues him with such an undercurrent of vulnerability that he’s determined to hide with cocky showmanship that we see right through him — as does Shawn.
It’s their ability to play off each other and naturalism in their work that sells the production, all buoyed by astute direction from Kenny Leon. Todd Rosenthal’s set, which flips from an empty wine bar to a curiosity shop between acts, is the perfect center court for the action.
Joseph’s writing is brisk and robust, bursting with ideas. The banter and give-and-take between Shawn and Matt helps the script move propulsively, the two of them throwing a metaphorical ball back and forth and setting each other up for shots as deftly as some of basketball’s most dynamic duos. There are some lines that are so acute (for instance, a second act exchange about the egotistical nature of trying not to be too much of a people pleaser) that elicit both laughter and a shiver of recognition.
Craig Schwartz Photography
But Joseph is trying to do too much here. James’ career is a fascinating subject upon which to hang a narrative of homosocial bonding and the complicated dance of male friendship. It offers up a framework for Matt and Shawn to interrogate everything from fandom to family. And perhaps one of its most promising angles is the ways in which Matt’s resentment and criticism of LeBron expose how railing against athletes is usually about far more than the game itself.
For the entire first act, the unspoken tension between Matt and Shawn lies in the issue of race and their careful avoidance of the subject, particularly when it comes to James. We finally touch that third rail in Act Two, but Joseph doesn’t push far enough, tackling it at only a surface level.
King James is an engrossing two-hander, and it presents a lot of themes to mull, but it simply doesn’t go deep enough on any of them. It’s a funny, touching viewing experience, but one can’t help but feel the gap between its wanting to say something and actually saying something.
It’s not a slam dunk, but that doesn’t mean audiences still won’t enjoy having a courtside seat. B.