'King James' review — Chris Perfetti and Glenn Davis lead a theatrical one-on-one match
Read our review of Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph's King James, starring Glenn Davis and Abbott Elementary's Chris Perfetti, at New York City Center.
There is a debate in King James, the play by Rajiv Joseph now running with Manhattan Theatre Club, over whether the greatest basketball player of all time is LeBron James, to whom the play pays tribute, or Michael Jordan. The play’s two characters argue in jest about which player leaves a bigger mark: Jordan did this, but James did that, and in this amount of time.
Their arguments, at least when it comes to basketball and its stars, are inconsequential, held for argument’s sake and not imparting much meaning on their characters’ journeys. Unfortunately, none of their other conversations — about jobs and money, about dreams and ambition, about social norms and expectations — impart much meaning either.
King James follows Matt (Chris Perfetti) and Shawn (Glenn Davis), two strangers who become close friends after Matt sells Shawn his Cleveland Cavaliers season tickets in 2004, James's rookie season. Their friendship mostly stems from their love of basketball, the respective illnesses of their parents, and their deep personal insecurities, which require one to thrive while the other grows dependent on them. But we glean these details between the lines, as we only see Matt and Shawn in subsequent years relevant to James’s career: 2010, when he left Cleveland for Miami; 2014, when he announced his return to the Cavaliers; and 2016, when he led the team to its first championship title.
Like the rest of the play, however, this engagement with basketball is surface-level. None of the details about the game, the Cavs, or James’s career require more than a cursory Wikipedia study to learn and integrate into the play. There is little discussion of James as a person or the brand he has built, and it feels as though any athlete or figure could be substituted in Matt and Shawn’s dialogue. During the first act, I considered that King James may play better in Cleveland, but this thought demeans Cleveland audiences, who might find use of their city, their team, their star more superficial.
Joseph tries to use James as a vehicle to discuss race in America in a paint-by-numbers fight between the two characters, then drops the passion to force the men to make up by show’s end. It makes sense for a white man and a Black man in a friendship to discuss racist microaggressions — Matt loves Shawn, but Shawn knows Matt must reckon with his ingrained biases — but the attempt is too transparent to land. If Shawn truly believes Matt has shown his true self through these microaggressions, why does he then decide their love of basketball is more important? After 12 years, could he really not find another friend to watch basketball with who wouldn’t belittle him?
Joseph, a former Pulitzer Prize finalist, also offers a nonsensical depiction of a writer's life: In 2014, Shawn is $100,000 in debt and must ask Matt to buy his plane ticket so he can take a meeting in Los Angeles. In 2016, after being staffed in one TV writer’s room, Shawn drops an exorbitant amount of money on basketball tickets and struts back to Cleveland like a peacock displaying its feathers, dressed like a cartoon image of hipster wealth. (If it were that easy, the WGA wouldn’t be on strike.) King James abandons its hopes of resonance for a world of vanity and convenience, its conflicts not resolved but dissolved.
The show's saving grace is Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design, which eventually reveals Matt’s family’s delightful, stuffed-to-the-gills antiques shop. But most baffling is the inclusion (a generous word) of Khloe Janel as the DJ. Though listed in the program as a cast member, Janel only appears before the show and during intermission to play a few music cues. Their presence does not evoke a basketball game emcee, but instead makes you wonder what goal Joseph or director Kenny Leon meant to fulfill with their addition.
Only a pre-show “Star-Spangled Banner” remix (to which the audience clapped along) hammers the idea home that we’re at a sports game. If only the show were as entertaining as one.
King James is at New York City Center through June 18. Get King James tickets on New York Theatre Guide.
Photo credit: Chris Perfetti and Glenn Davis in King James. (Photo by Craig Schwartz Photography)
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