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On the surface, “King James” honors the tremendous impact of LeBron James on Cleveland Cavaliers fans for the initial years of his stellar career. However, the play that made its official world premiere last week at the Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles merely uses James’ career moves to measure time. Instead “King James” honors the value of unexpected friendship, particularly one that defies cultural and social identities, with its two luminous lead actors keeping the audience engrossed more than the Cavaliers ever could without their former star.
“King James,” the play, follows two men – black writer Shawn (a charming Glenn Davis) and a white would-be entrepreneur/bar owner Matt (Chris Perfetti from “Abbott Elementary.” It relates their thoughts about King James, the athlete, and his impact while dealing with their own career hits and misses.
Cavalier Ups and Downs
Playwright Rajiv Joseph (“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”) hailed from Cleveland. He was in grad school at New York University when James made the leap from high school ball in Akron, Ohio, to the Cavaliers in 2003. However, Joseph clearly heard about the excitement in his hometown which he incorporates in “King James.” As Matt notes in the play, “The economic wellbeing of Cleveland hangs on a teenager from Akron.” People who never went to a game or followed the less-than-stellar team jumped on the bandwagon to cheer on the phenom.
James played for the Cavs for seven years before moving to the Miami Heat in 2010. After four years, he returned to play in Cleveland four more years before heading West to join the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018. While knowing the athlete’s career trajectory helps the “King James” audience understand the timeline and some jokes, Joseph wisely avoids putting much weight on James’ invisible shoulders. Instead, he makes the two male characters the focal point of the dramedy.
In the first scene, Shawn comes to Matt’s wine bar to try and purchase his Cavaliers season tickets for a bargain price before James arrives to transform the team. Shawn is in struggling. However, he hopes the arrival of James will boost the local economy and his business. The negotiations turn into a long-term relationship. Ultimately, Shawn’s career mirrors James’ as they both leave Cleveland to pursue success elsewhere.
James returned to Ohio from Florida. Similarly, Shawn returns from Hollywood after finding his job on a television show writing team less than satisfactory. Meanwhile, Matt’s business has closed leaving him to grapple with self-esteem issues while working for his parents. Like the former Cavaliers star, the “King James” leads are trying to figure out their future, while still honoring their past friendship.
While the dialog is enjoyable, Joseph opts not to explore some of the issues touched upon. The “King James” characters bring up various issues, such as race. However, the script leaves them hanging rather than creating more discord between the characters. There are clearly opportunities missed to add more depth.
However, it is the obvious rapport between Perfetti and Davis that makes “King James” special. Davis portrays Shawn as an eager, yet thoughtful young man. He periodically erupts in anger, usually about sports, but wants to be ingratiating. He even winds up closer to Matt’s parents than Matt is. In Perfetti’s hands, the latter man tries to mask his insecurity by conveying an air of cocky entitlement. He rages “about what’s wrong with America,” but is trying to use bluster as a cover. Perfetti makes Matt unlikeable in a way that makes you still root for him, much like the well-intentioned character (Jacob) he plays on “Abbott Elementary,”
The two actors’ ability to play off each other enhances “King James,” along with the direction from Kenny Leon. The set, by Todd Rosenthal, is carefully staged to reflect their changing fortunes. It shifts from the empty wine bar at the beginning to the curiosity/thrift shop owned by Matt’s parents. Rosenthal put in a lot of detail to catch the audience’s eyes, but the interesting scenic items do not add to the “King James” plot.
While not a must-see, “King James” offers a funny, touching time. Engrossing and well-acted, “King James” will continue to honor male friendship (and the former Cavaliers star/current Laker) until July 3, 2022, at the Mark Taper Forum.
Written by Dyanne Weiss
“King James” performance June 8, 2022
Center Theatre Group
Photo by Craig Schwartz of (L-R) Chris Perfetti and Glenn Davis in “King James” courtesy of Center Theatre Group.