I first saw this show in Los Angeles, after its initial run at Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theater. And now, “King James” has arrived at City Center. Produced by the Manhattan Theater Club, this piece, despite its title, is not about a Royal...unless you are a serious NBA fan. Yes, the James refers to LeBron, who recently–as a Los Angeles Laker–broke the all-time scoring record at the age of 38. And is currently ruling the courts again in this season’s playoffs.
He burst on the scene as a Cleveland Cavalier, while still a teenager, which is where this two-man show takes place. Written by Rajiv Joseph, (former Pulitzer Prize finalist) and directed by Kenny Leon, the play is divided into four mini-acts, each representing a watershed year in James’ career with the Cavs: 2004, (his rookie season) 2010, (when he announced that he was leaving the team for the Miami Heat) 2014, (when he returned to Cleveland) and 2016 (when the Cavs won the team’s first NBA championship). But being a sports junkie (I plead guilty!) isn’t required here. “King James” is about why we develop intense identifications with individual athletes and teams. And it’s ultimately a study of a friendship.
Those “friends” are strangers when we first meet them, in a small emporium. They have little in common–starting with the color of their skin—but find mutual appreciation of that King. Playwright Joseph’s motivation in writing this was very personal. It turns out he grew up in Cleveland. “Lebron was a presence in my life for some 20 years,” he says. “I can mark moments in my life when he was making some move. I was interested in his impact on the city and how it erupted when he came, when he left, when he returned. His is a tempestuous and yes, dramatic, story.”
Joseph has not changed a word in the script during its runs in the three cities where the show has played. Each sees things through its own lens: Chicago is a great sports town; Los Angeles is home of the Lakers; and here in New York, well, Knicks fans are enjoying a rare moment as well, in the Playoffs. The same lines can resonate very different depending on who you’re rooting for or against.
The two actors, Glenn Davis and Chris Perfetti, are delightful, highly accomplished, and have been with the show from the beginning. Davis, who portrays Shawn, is also Artistic Director of Steppenwolf, and performed in the highly regarded “Downstate” off-Broadway earlier this year. But “King James” matters most right now. “I love that this play is a platonic love story between two bros, talking about their emotions,” he says. “It is also about a particular brand of fandom. People come to blows over sports, but they may in fact be expressing other things. Rajiv says people change religions more often than teams. Racial components come into play, but that is not the main focus.”
His counterpoint, Matt, is played by Chris Perfetti, who is enjoying a moment in Hollywood as one of the stars of the hugely popular sitcom “Abbot Elementary.” Davis saw Perfetti in a play a few years back at the Public, was blown away, and suggested him for this play. “He is a creature of the stage,” says playwright Joseph. Previously not a sports fan, Perfetti has grown to appreciate similarities between the worlds of acting and sports.
“Actors—certainly great actors—are, in their own right, athletes on stage,” Perfetti has said. The fact this all came together in New York now is almost a miracle of timing. The production is working around Perfetti’s TV hiatus, Davis’ planning the next season of Steppenwolf, and director Kenny Leon’s preparing this summer’s “Hamlet” for Shakespeare in the Park.
So, will New York basketball fans show up to honor a legend ? Well, they may have some mixed feelings. As Gary Hoenig, a veteran sports editor who helped launch ESPN The Magazine and is now Executive Editor of Meadowlark Media, reminded me, “When he left Cleveland, the city had great hope that LeBron would choose it instead of Miami. It was ready to welcome him as a savor, but it didn’t happen.”
Love him or resent him, no one doubts this man’s impact. His name has not lost its glitter. During their first playoff game a few weeks ago, Lakers front-seat fan Jack Nicholson showed up for the first time in more than a year. The crowd and press were thrilled. And what moment got the most pre-game cameras clicking? When the actor was welcomed back with a hug from, yep, LeBron James.
“King James” is at City Center, in previews, opening May 16.