By Samuel L. Leiter . . .
The Manhattan Theatre Club is having a friendship moment. Over at its Broadway venue, the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, David Auburn’s Summer, 1976 follows the onset, development, decline, and aftermath of a friendship between two mismatched women over the last quarter of the 20th century (it ends in 2003). Several blocks away, at MTC’s Off-Broadway redoubt in the basement of the City Center, King James by Raviv Joseph (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo), a comedy-drama (accent on the comedy), holds the stage with a similar theme, this one concerning two male basketball fans in scenes set in 2004, 2010, 2014, and 2016. Smoothly staged by Kenny Leon (Top Dog/Underdog) and well performed by Glenn Davis and Chris Perfetti, this coproduction of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater and LA’s Center Theater Group (both cities have seen it), makes for a pleasant enough two-hour diversion, although it circles the rim for a while before falling in.
Its odd couple consists of rabid Cleveland Cavaliers fans Shawn (Davis, Downstate) and Matt (Perfetti, TV’s “Abbott Elementary”). Shawn, a wannabe writer from a poor background, whose mother has MS, is black; Matt, who wants to open a high-end bowling alley-drinking establishment, is middle-class and white; his chief financial support is his parents. At the core of Matt and Shawn’s fascination with the Cavs is the phenomenal player LeBron James, the eponymous “king.”
Triggering their bond, conceived in the first of four scenes, is what happens when Shawn shows up at the medieval-themed wine bar, La Cave du Vin, where bartender Matt plays pretend hoops by shooting a crumpled newspaper into a trash receptacle. Matt has been going to Cavs games with his dad—whose physical condition now prevents his attendance—on season tickets since he was a kid. Matt, in debt because of bad investments and credit card abuse, desperately needs to sell his seats to the new season. Given that this will be the rookie season for the enormously talented James, a local boy already hugely popular, the seats are worth even more than Matt’s willing to sell them for; still, they’re far more than Shawn can afford. Eventually, a deal is made, and a tentative alliance is born.
While you needn’t be a basketball fan to appreciate King James, it certainly wouldn’t hurt, since so much of the small talk is hoops-related, including comparisons of LeBron James to Michael Jordan. The very existence of fandom itself, however, is certainly a universal theme, and the play makes a stab at explaining why we become obsessed with some particular individual or team, which can, of course, be extended to any sort of fanaticism (from which word, we’re reminded, “fan” derives).
We revisit Shawn and Matt in 2010, when James breaks local hearts by leaving the Cavs for the Miami Heat; in 2014, when he returns to Cleveland; and in 2016, when he leads the team to its first NBA championship in its 50-year history. Big changes happen over that span, of course. Shawn (in a decision paralleling James’s) moves away to study TV writing in New York, and then to LA, where he’s hired to work on a TV series; neither the gig nor the new city (home of the hated Lakers), though, meet with his expectations. However, much as the current writers’ strike might argue otherwise, Shawn’s job as one in a writers’ room of seven appears to pay him well enough for him to flaunt his newfound largesse.
Matt, meanwhile, sees his dream of entrepreneurship flop, forcing him to work at his parents’ quaint reupholstering and second-hand shop, of which he’s ashamed. Shawn, for his part, loves the place, and even used to work there. This allows Todd Rosenthal’s wine bar set—delicately lit by Lee Fiskness—to shift (via a turntable) to a charmingly cluttered store filled with curiosities, including a stuffed armadillo called Armand, after whom the place is named.
The play toys with historical markers (including Samantha C. Jones’s costumes), having particular fun with the evolution of cellphones. In 2004, Chris is surprised to learn of the existence of texting on his Motorola Razr; by 2016, he’s typing at Mach speed with his thumbs on a smart phone. Such things get laughs, of course (even a snapped open flip phone receives one), but the lines themselves, and their well-timed delivery, are often cute enough to amuse on their own.
Serving to keep the atmosphere upbeat, but having no narrative purpose at all, is Khloe Janel, a professional DJ awkwardly ensconced in a Punch and Judy-like space at audience right, and appearing only as a prologue and between the acts when they play (and groove to) rhythmic tunes of the period. Oddly, while they get a cast bio, their name appears nowhere on the credits page. Distracting as their presence is, we get to hear some cool music, most notably Marvin Gaye’s unusual riff on “The Star Spangled Banner,” which alone is almost worth the price of admission.
When Shawn, now more successful than Matt, who helped him out earlier, shows up unexpectedly in the final scene, they manage to work through some initial discomfort in the wake of their suspended relationship. Shawn, by the way, has kept up his warm connection with Matt’s mother; but Matt, who likes to bitch about “the problems with America,” has never reached out to Shawn’s folks.
Regardless, when Matt, who can be naively insensitive, expresses his discontent with LeBron’s returning to the team he abandoned by offhandedly saying he should “know his place,” it lights a fire under the racially touchy Shawn that threatens to burn their amity down. This is where the accent switches from the comedy side to the drama one. The contretemps seems forced, and its substance superficial, coming off as a pro forma way to test the strength of the men’s bond, which, happily, manages to withstand the stress.
Both actors are excellent. Perfetti, whose boyish portrayal of Matt doesn’t fall far from the tree of the curly-haired Jacob Hill on “Abbott Elementary,” nimbly captures the self-centered insouciance of the spoiled white guy. Davis plays Shawn as an earnest striver, eager to please, and his passionate expression of joy when good things happen for the Cavs is delightful to see. His tripwire snappiness, however, when Matt’s comment offends him seems a trifle out of character, but he carries it off with aplomb.
A mock basketball game at the end between the buddies, using an antique globe whose top half opens, is perfectly staged by Leon to bring the piece to a satisfying finale. While King James is far from a slam dunk, it scores enough 3-pointers to keep you rooting for it, fouls and all.
King James. Through June 18 at New York City Center Stage I/Manhattan Theatre Club (131 West 55th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). www.manhattantheatreclub.com
Photos: Luke Fontana