Manhattan Theatre Club’s New York premiere of King James, playing a limited Off-Broadway engagement at New York City Center, follows the path of an unexpected friendship between Matt and Shawn, two devoted fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers and their superstar player LeBron James, known by the eponymous nickname for his total command of the court. Written by Rajiv Joseph (a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo) and directed by Tony Award winner Kenny Leon, the intimate two-hander is funny and heartwarming, the performances are natural and believable, and the characters are consummately human and likable, as they go from first meeting to growing connection, separation and tension to reconciliation and awareness of their unbreakable bond over the course of twelve years, from ages 21-33.
Set in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, the story is presented in four quarters, with a halftime intermission (following the format of the game they both love), in scenes that correspond to four of the most significant years of James’ basketball career with the Cavaliers: his first season with Cleveland in 2004, when he won the NBA Rookie of the Year Award; his decision to leave the team as a free agent and sign with the Miami Heat in 2010; opting out of his contract with the Heat to return to the Cavs in 2014; and leading Cleveland to its first NBA championship in 2016. In Joseph’s script, the journey of the men’s platonic relationship parallels those major events in the sport that brought them together and ultimately keeps the two loners – one white, one Black – connected.
There’s a lot of impassioned talk about basketball, the teams, and players, and negotiating the price of the pair of season tickets Matt is selling and Shawn wants to buy – the reason for his initial visit to Matt’s wine bar. Through their conversations – at first awkward, then progressively easy and comfortable – they (and we) find out their backstories, their financial circumstances, and their decision to share the tickets and go to the games together, since neither had anyone else to invite.
They also disclose their dreams for the future, which would eventually cause Shawn (who delayed telling his friend) to move to NYC for graduate school, then to LA for his job as a screenwriter, leaving Matt to work at Armand’s, his parents’ upholstery, used furniture, and collectibles shop (which he never wanted to do), after his business ventures fail. But through their reversal of fortunes, they help each other, Shawn becomes increasingly close to Matt’s parents, they continue to express their deep-rooted feelings about the home team, and even reveal their own insecurities, until twinges of jealousy, disagreements about James, and a racially insensitive (or misconstrued) comment cause tension between them and threaten to end their years of camaraderie.
The perfectly paired stellar cast of Glenn Davis as Shawn and Chris Perfetti as Matt deliver all the laughs, the common excitement about their favorite sport and player, and the real emotions that come to the surface in this insightful, engaging, and moving study of male bonding. Their portrayals of the distinctive personalities shift, as they manifest the men’s influence on one another (e.g., Shawn, who didn’t drink, now shares wine with Matt; Matt, who knew nothing about texting until Shawn explained it to him and showed him all the messages he had, is now attached to his cell phone), bring psychological understanding and empathy to their roles, and keep us rooting for their connection to be strong enough to outshoot and outscore any discord.
To help set the mood, the engaging DJ Khloe Janel provides pre-show and halftime music, including an extended contemporary version of the national anthem, with a stadium crowd cheering in the background (sound by Michael Bodeen & Rob Milburn), moves to the beat, and directly connects with the audience. Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design takes us from Matt’s upscale wine bar to the clutter, then liquidation, of Armand’s via a rotating stage, enhanced with lighting and blackouts by Lee Fiskness, and costumes by Samantha C. Jones denote the changing economic status, occupations, and fandom of the characters.
You don’t have to be a follower of basketball, the Cavaliers, or LeBron James to be caught up in the energy, humor, and meaning of King James. Anyone who’s ever had a close friend with a shared passion can relate to the heart and humanity of this affecting story and the ability of sports, music, and theater to bring people together.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including an intermission.
King James plays through Sunday, June 18, 2023, at the Manhattan Theatre Club, performing at New York City Center, Stage I, 131 West 55th Street, NYC. For tickets (starting at $79, including fees), call (212) 581-1212, or go online. Masks are required for Tuesday evenings and Sunday matinees; at all other performances, masks are optional but strongly encouraged.