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Theatre in Review: King James (Manhattan Theatre Club/City Center Stage I)

Glenn Davis, Chris Perfetti. Photo: Craig Schwartz

Sports fandom as a vehicle for friendship -- or, maybe, a substitute for it -- is the subject of Rajiv Joseph's new comedy; it's an especially pressing question when the characters hail from Cleveland, a town where the fans' hopes die a thousand times. King James, a cannily observant two-hander, begins in 2003, when LeBron James joins the Cleveland Cavaliers. The team is at a low point and hopes are high that the young draft can turn this around. At the very least, James' appearance on the scene brings together Joseph's characters for a fraught relationship that waxes and wanes with their favorite team's prospects.

Matt, the manager of a wine bar in suburban Cleveland Heights, has a set of season tickets he needs to unload at the highest possible price, having run up debts trying to launch his own watering hole. One prospective customer is Shawn, who works two jobs just to keep his head above water. Cue the haggling: Matt, a perpetual underperformer with a grievance against his skeptical parents, is surrendering a longtime family tradition; Shawn, who has never seen a game live, is desperate for the chance but, in trying to support his nascent fiction-writing career, is stretched thin, financially. Neither man wants to budge.

After considerable back and forth, a deal is struck and, with it, a relationship. Seven years later, the friends are drowning their sorrows over the news that James is moving on to the Miami Heat. (When it comes to bitterness, Shawn's cup runneth over: "'I'm gonna take my talents to South Beach,' like it's in code or something. Just say it: 'I'm leaving the Cavs, I'm going to play for Miami, I'm a l'il punk-ass bitch'.") As if happens, there's another defection in the offing, one that will take Shawn to graduate school in New York. Matt, to his surprise, feels abandoned and shut out; adding salt to the wound, Matt's mother, with whom Shawn has bonded, knows all about it. And, as Matt notes, Shawn's plan doesn't likely include a return trip to Cleveland.

As it happens, it's not the last time Matt and Shawn will find themselves on rocky ground, their alliance (and its perceived betrayals) oddly mirrored by the comings and goings of basketball's GOAT. As the years go by, Matt launches a chic new bar and Shawn ends up in LA, writing for television -- Joseph has merciless fun with Shawn's series, about Buddhist crime fighters -- yet the two are united by their basketball obsession and divided by grievance and jealousy. Fanning the flames are their whipsawing fortunes: When Shawn, who is Black, relies on cash from Matt to get started out west, he feels patronized, kept in his place by the other's largesse. When their situation is reversed, Matt, overtaken by envy, can't stop sniping at his friend's career. Even so, such recriminations are an index of their mutual dependence -- and there's always another twist in the LeBron tale to argue about.

A relatively light piece at first glance, King James nevertheless has plenty to say about masculinity, race, and the peculiar way a team's success or failure can shape the future of its hometown. Under Kenny Leon's highly nuanced direction, his two stars convincingly turn friendship into a supremely competitive sport. Chris Perfetti's Matt is a total fussbudget, routinely offering new diagnoses of the problem with America, expertly practicing the art of one-upmanship, and, especially when wounded, needling Shawn with acute accuracy. He is especially amusing when defending the 73 phone text messages he didn't know about -- hey, it's 2003 -- and offering the following jaundiced assessment of the LeBron affair: "Cleveland is this guy...who loved this woman. But she dumped him and ran off with a rich, handsome douchebag named Miami! And they carried on and had this fabulous life together, but then it fell apart and now she's coming back here, tail between her legs, asking you to take her back. And you're, like, Welcome back, baby, I love you I missed you so much." (This may or may not be an oblique on Matt's trail of failed romantic relationships.)

Glenn Davis' Shawn is a cagey defense player, keeping his deepest feelings -- including his literary ambitions and his resentment of Matt -- under wraps; when he has an outburst, you can be sure that it is about more than the state of his favorite team. He is especially entertaining when handing out really bad romantic advice or detailing the hellish facts of life in his series' writers' room. As in sports, teamwork is the key, and this production has plenty of it.

It also has a surprisingly elaborate (and effective) set design by Todd Rosenthal, showing "Le Cave du Vins" (Matt' workplace), and, later, the used furniture store owned by Matt's parents, a space crammed full of decorative oddities. (It is named Armand's after the armadillo in the window.) Lee Fiskness' lighting deftly juggles warm and cold white tones to create different time-of-day looks and emotional states. Samantha C. Jones' costumes accurately track the characters' changing situations; a nice touch is the Armand's uniform the men are required to wear at different points. Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen's sound design works well with DJ Khloe Janel, who spins platters before the show and spikes the action with hits from Prince and Eminem.

King James, previously seen at Steppenwolf Theatre Company (where Davis is artistic director) and Center Theatre Group, is the sort of play I wish we'd see more often, an affable comedy that packs a delayed punch, preferring to win us over before making its tougher, subtler points. It's an elegant piece, further lifted by a pair of assured performances. Its easy expertise is something even the great LeBron might envy. --David Barbour

(25 May 2023)

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