Sport can bring us together, fuel our frustration, form unexpected friendships and reveal cracks in our social and cultural history.
In king james – now making its world premiere at the Center Theater Group’s Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles as part of a co-production with Chicago’s acclaimed Steppenwolf Theater Company – sport, especially basketball, is all that and more .
From Pulitzer finalist Rajiv Joseph, king james is a parable of male friendship forged by a mutual love of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Joseph uses LeBron James and his career moves (rookie from Cleveland, 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 convince Matt to sell him his remaining Cavaliers subscriptions at a reasonable price. As they peel back each other’s layers, they hit it off, eventually sparking a friendship that later mirrors James’ career, as Shawn decides to leave Cleveland to pursue his writing dreams.
Perfetti and Davis are superb and their chemistry is immediate. While Shawn is caring and gracious, Matt is insecure and entitled – he doesn’t seem like much to bond with, but in their performances it’s easy to see that instant connection and the appeal of understanding and brotherhood that brings them back. to one another.
Davis strikes with his immobility, his excitement or his anger (mainly against LeBron) all the more powerful in the moments when he bursts. He lends Shawn a sweetness that underscores the character’s inherent melancholy. Shawn isn’t so alone as he’s used to being alone, a fact that makes his ups and downs with Matt all the more poignant.
Perfetti, who plays well-meaning but exhaustingly woke Jacob on the ABC hit Abbott Elementary, walks a tightrope of brooding selfishness that masks a deeper loneliness and a thirst for connection. Matt isn’t, to be honest, the nicest guy (he doesn’t have to be), but Perfetti imbues him with such an undercurrent of vulnerability that he’s determined to hide with a cocky showmanship we see through him – just like Shawn.
It’s their ability to play against each other and the naturalism in their work that sells the production, all underpinned by the shrewd direction of Kenny Leon. Todd Rosenthal’s set, which transforms from an empty wine bar to a curio shop between acts, is the perfect center court for the action.
Joseph’s writing is lively and robust, full of ideas. The banter and concessions between Shawn and Matt help the storyline move propulsively, with the two metaphorically tossing a ball back and forth and setting up for shots as deftly as some of basketball’s most dynamic duos. Some lines are so sharp (for example, a second-act exchange about the selfish nature of trying not to please people too much) that elicits both laughter and a shudder of recognition.
Craig Schwartz Photography
But Joseph is trying to do too much here. James’ career is a fascinating subject on which to hang a tale of homosocial bonds and the complicated dance of male friendship. It provides a setting for Matt and Shawn to interrogate everything from fandom to family. And perhaps one of his most promising angles is how Matt’s resentment and criticism of LeBron reveals how taunting athletes is usually so much more than the game itself. .
Throughout the first act, the unspoken tension between Matt and Shawn lies in the issue of race and their careful avoidance of the subject, especially when it comes to James. We finally hit that third rail in act two, but Joseph doesn’t push it far enough, only addressing it on a superficial level.
king james is an engaging two-handed game, and it has a lot of themes to cover, but it just isn’t in-depth enough on one of them. It’s a fun and touching visual experience, but you can’t help but feel the gap between wanting to say something and actually saying Something.
It’s not a slam dunk, but that doesn’t mean the crowd still won’t appreciate having a pitchside seat. B