Rajiv Joseph’s new drama, King James, takes its name from a biblical figure in the world of modern sports: LeBron James. And the NBA superstar looms large over the lives of two misfit suburban Cleveland outsiders who are at the center of the action.
Matt (played by Abbott Elementary star Chris Perfetti) is an economically privileged nerd who’s dropped out of college and is struggling to overcome his parents’ rock-bottom projections for his future. Meanwhile, Shawn (Glenn Davis) is a more working-class guy holding down a couple jobs while trying to launch a career as a writer. They’re brought together when Shawn sells a short story and earns a sudden windfall that brings him to the basement wine bar where Matt is working — and seeking to unload 19 pairs of Cavaliers tickets during the tail end of James’s rookie season.
King James — which opened Tuesday at Off Broadway’s Manhattan Theatre Club — is less concerned with James, or even basketball, than how great athletes and sports talk serve as a lubricant for straight male friendships. Matt and Shawn, strangers when we first meet them, emerge as friends whose primary bond is forged not in playing sports but in the endless back-and-forth about sports, the esoteric arguments about who the GOAT is (Michael Jordan or James) or how quickly Cavs fans should welcome James back when he returns to the team after abandoning his hometown for Miami in the early 2010s.
Joseph has a real feel for the rhythms of male conversation — and he seeds his dialogue with clues about how these two guys have developed a kind of brotherhood over time. Matt, suddenly flush from a bar that he’s opened, lends Shawn money for trips to L.A. to jump-start his screenwriting career. And Davis references his many conversations with Matt’s mom, with whom he seems in closer contact than Matt himself.
Under Kenny Leon’s sharp direction, the two stars deliver performances that feel natural and lived-in. Perfetti is a bit of a live wire, blithe about his economic advantages but bristling with ambitious plans that may yet come through. Davis, an artistic director of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre (where this play first premiered last spring), is a cooler cat, more reserved even as he develops confidence in his talents and a willingness to break free from the confines of his Cleveland upbringing.
Joseph structures his play into four acts, or quarters, representing pivotal moments in James’s career: his first season (2004); his fateful decision to “take my talents to South Beach” (2010); his return to the Cavs (2014); and his scoring the team’s first NBA championship in a come-from-behind upset (2016). The time shifts allow us to see the strains in the friendship as their personal fortunes shift, though a third-act blow-up over race feels a bit artificial, even for guys who tend to bury their true opinions and emotions beneath surface banter and sports talk.
For many straight guys, of course, the banter is the point — not only providing a framework for conversation, but also the metaphors for more serious subjects. And Joseph captures this dynamic with sharpness — and a great deal of laugh-out-loud humor, as in an exchange about the religious origins of the word fan. “Every fan is just some fundamental extremist, funneling their devotion down an endless drain,” Shawn tells Matt at one point, remind him that fan is just “short for fanatic.” Matt doubts this is true, suggesting instead the word comes from “an electronic fan or something … because we’re cool.”
King James is cool in that way too — a portrait of platonic male friendship that is both incisive and affectionate.