Review: LeBron mania informs a tale of friendship in Rajiv Joseph’s ‘King James’ at the Taper
“King James” is named after basketball player nonpareil LeBron James, who looms over Rajiv Joseph’s entertaining new drama like a demigod. Although James himself never appears onstage, his status on his former team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, determines the frame of mind of two fans who have been brought together by a common love of the sport and mutual worship of their idol.
The play, which opened Wednesday at the Mark Taper Forum in a co-production with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, is divided like a game into four quarters. Each represents a watershed year in James’ career with the Cavs: 2004 (his rookie season), 2010 (when he announced that he was leaving the Cavs for the Miami Heat), 2014 (when he returned to Cleveland) and 2016 (when the Cavs won the team’s first NBA championship).
But extensive knowledge or even interest in the sport isn’t required. “King James” takes up the question of why we develop intense identifications with individual athletes and teams, but it’s ultimately a study in friendship. The subject, which has been curiously neglected by dramatists given its centrality to most of our lives, is seen merely through a basketball lens.
Two young men, one white, one Black, are struggling to establish their adult identities. Neither is especially adept at putting words to feelings. Basketball helps them channel their emotions.
Rajiv Joseph’s play ‘King James’ uses LeBron’s Cleveland years as the backdrop for a story about friendship, race and the uniting power of sports.
Through their loyalty to a losing team and adoration of a sports superhero, Matt (Chris Perfetti, a star of ABC’s runaway hit comedy “Abbott Elementary”) and Shawn (Glenn Davis, one of the artistic directors of Steppenwolf Theatre Company and an ensemble acting member) are able to give voice to their hopes and passions, their crushing disappointments and belated victories. An inner tumult, which might otherwise stay buried or acted out inappropriately after one too many beers, finds an understanding witness, a fellow sharer, a pal.
An insecure white guy worried that he’s not going to transcend his parents’ low expectations for him, Matt is trying to unload season tickets for the Cavs, a pair for each game, when the play begins in 2004. He works at La Cave du Vin, an upscale wine bar in Cleveland Heights, where the action is set.
Shawn, a budding Black writer working a series of jobs to make ends meet, answers the call with $2,000. He’s never attended a game in person before but has decided to treat himself to good seats after selling a short story.
Not enough, says Matt, who is holding out for more than twice that amount. He desperately needs money but can’t bear parting with the tickets at any price. These seats belonged to his father, who is no longer able to attend games for health reasons. To make matters more agonizing, it’s James’ rookie season and from what Matt has seen “he’s already eclipsed” Michael Jordan.
“He hasn’t done anything yet,” Shawn reasonably objects.
“Don’t matter. It’s implicational,” Matt replies.
Shawn lets slip that basketball saved his life. He doesn’t get into details, but Matt, assured that he’s not selling the tickets to a “bandwagon fan,” decides that the seats won’t be going to waste. Matt asks whom Shawn will be bringing along. It’s a question that Shawn, a bit of a loner, hasn’t thought much about. And voilà, a basketball friendship is born.
Joseph, the author of the extraordinarily ambitious drama “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” which was produced by Center Theatre Group before it reached Broadway, is operating on a smaller canvas here. “King James” is a fairly conventional two-character drama with a tight thematic focus, a lively sense of humor and the psychological care of a memorable short story.
Directed with élan by Tony-winner Kenny Leon, the production raises the energy level with stadium-style razzle-dazzle. Flashing lights circulate through the audience before the play begins and during scene changes. A DJ (Khloe Janel), visibly perched in a booth offstage, blasts R&B and pop tunes that had subscribers jiggling in their seats and singing in the lobby.
But Leon allows nothing to get in the way of his actors, who are in effect playing ball together as performers. Perfetti and Davis anticipate each other’s moves, react to opportunities in real time and feed off the excitement in the house.
“King James” had me wondering if Joseph had set out to write a Kenneth Lonergan play. Matt, who’s nerdy and a bit obtuse but endowed with touching depth, is the kind of Lonergan role that Michael Cera excelled in. The writing here isn’t as off-kilter, but Perfetti draws out the quirky fragility of his character to moving effect.
Davis’ Shawn is the more reasonable of the two friends, smarter in many respects but too compassionate to ever feel superior. He understands the ethic of Midwestern modesty but yearns for a touch of glory from his writing and refuses to constrain his dreams for other people’s comfort.
The play sometimes seems mechanical in its handling of turning points. Conflict, when it comes, can feel spiked — the playwright doing what’s needed to advance his story. I never forgot that I was watching two terrific actors in a piece of writing intent on satisfying a paying crowd. As realism goes, the play is more effective than seamless.
Yet it’s the “implicational moments,” if I may borrow Matt’s word, that are most alive. Matt and Shawn become best friends, but before the words are used we deduce their deepening connection. Shawn mentions visiting Matt’s dad at the hospital and develops his own relationship with Matt’s mother. Matt makes a passing comment about the wake for Shawn’s mother.
A lot of life happens over the span of the play. Loved ones die, hearts are broken (never more bitterly than when James announces “I’m gonna take my talents to South Beach”) and dreams go bust. Fights break out too, one in the third quarter touching on matters of race. But it’s the invisible way a platonic love survives despite all the wear and tear that stirs our intuition and imagination.
The play unfolds in two highly distinct workplace settings — La Cave du Vin and an eccentric used furniture and upholstery store owned by Matt’s parents — that scenic designer Todd Rosenthal brings to vivid life. The characters are cloistered together through victory and defeat.
What is this tether that Matt and Shawn can’t relinquish even when they’re angry at each other? At different points in the play, one man is up and the other is down. Offering a helping hand is how, as Matt says with characteristic naive honesty, they’ll manage to “get through this life together.”
I would be surprised if this top-notch production of “King James” doesn’t end up on Broadway. But the Taper is an ideal place to savor this tale of two buddies united by basketball, a once-in-a-generation player, a humble city and shared time.
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends July 3 (call for exceptions)
Tickets: $35-$110 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 972-4400 or centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (including one 15-minute intermission)
COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccination is required. Masks are required at all times. (Check website for changes.)
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