“I’m tired of sports. It’s a sickness,” Shawn says to Matt in the middle of “King James,” Rajiv Joseph’s sweetly innocuous comedy about two lifelong fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team. Shawn doesn’t really mean it. It is 2010, and he is upset that LeBron James, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, has announced he is leaving the Cavs for the Miami Heat.
Matt disagrees with Shawn (for neither the first nor the last time), arguing: “Being a fan is like having a religion.”
This feels true. Fans of theater seem religious in much the same way, treating their pastime as not just worthy of obsession but something full of deep meaning about the human condition. And theater often is, but not always. For example: As it tracks these two Cleveland natives over a twelve-year period — a time span that coincides with major events in the career of LeBron James — “King James” could be viewed not just as a comedy about two basketball bros, but as a meditation on the nature of fandom, the vicissitudes of friendship, even the limitations of heterosexual male intimacy. Or not. While I happen to be a long-time fan of nearly everybody involved in “King James” – especially playwright Rajiv Joseph , director Kenny Leon, and actor Chris Perfetti – each has been central to other work that I found more exciting.
Shawn (Glenn Davis) meets Matt (Chris Perfetti) in 2004 when they are both twenty-one years old in the bar where Matt is working as a bartender. A mutual friend has told Shawn that Matt has season tickets to sell. This disturbs Matt as much as it delights Shawn, since it’s LeBron James’s rookie year, and fans expect great things from him. Matt really doesn’t want to sell his tickets; he’s been attending the game in these very seats with his father since the age of six. But he needs the money; he’s in debt, his effort at launching a bowling alley having gone bust. Shawn can’t quite afford the tickets, but he really wants to buy them; he’s never seen the game in person, and promised himself he would do so once he’d made some money; he just sold his first short story. The season package is for a pair of tickets, but Shawn, something of a loner, has no one to go with. A friendship is born.
The next scene is six years later – the year of LeBron’s betrayal, which Shawn takes harder than Matt. They clearly have been going to the games together ever since they met. But if basketball is the basis of their friendship, there are clues that it has evolved, including the start of a running joke in the play: Matt’s (unseen) parents apparently like Shawn better than their own son, spending more time with him. At one point, they even hire him to work in their store.
The last two scenes occur in 2014, when LeBron returns to the Cavs, and 2016, when he wins the NBA championship for the Cavs for the first time in their fifty-year history. If during all this time they have LeBron in common, there is little else they wind up sharing, from career prospects to feelings about the game to attitudes toward each other; there is even a moment of friction based on race.
The specificity of details in “King James” is skillfully rendered – most visibly in the Act II set by Todd Rosenthal of Matt’s parents’ notion shop, Armand’s, named after a stuffed armadillo. (I’m also a long-time fan of Rosenthal’s set design) There is also impressive detail in the playwright’s portraits of these two men; and in the acting. Davis is remarkably persuasive, even infectious, in his enthusiasm for the return of the King, and Perfetti subtly reveals the layers of insecurity beneath the spoiled middle class kid whose favorite phrase is the unanchored rant “That’s the problem of America”
Shawn winds up a successful writer for a TV series – as, in real life, did (Cleveland-raised) Rajiv Joseph, for “Nurse Jackie,” although Joseph’s extensive theater credits include the wondrous Broadway play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” and, most recently, “Letters of Suresh.” He’s certainly not abandoning the stage. In that context, I’d like to give a particular shout-out to Chris Perfetti, now known widely for his role as Jacob Hill in the ABC comedy “Abbott Elementary.” But Pefetti stood out for much of a decade for his performances on the New York stage — hilarious as the sniveling scoundrel in The Low Road spot-on as both a demure wife and an out-loud gay man in Cloud NIne, engaging as the unhappy middle sister, Masha in the Chekhov spoof/homage “Moscow, Moscow, Moscow.” It’s thrilling for a fan to see that he has returned.
MTC at New York City Center through June 18, 2023
Running time: Two hours including an intermission.
Tickets: $79 to $99
Written by Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Kenny Leon
Scenic design by Todd Rosenthal, costume design by Samantha C. Jones, lighting design by Lee Fiskness, sound design by Michael Bodeen & Rob Milburn, vocal coach Gigi Buffington (vocal coach),
Cast: Glenn Davis, Chris Perfetti, Khloe Janel (who serves as DJ during intermission)
Photos by Craig Schwartz