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Off Broadway Reviews

King James

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - May 16, 2023

Glenn Davis and Chris Perfetti
Photo by Craig Schwartz
How much you know about basketball, it seems fair to say, will go a long way toward determining how much you will like Rajiv Joseph's King James, at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage 1. I don't know anything about basketball.

But I do know about bromance, and on that score, Joseph delivers, modestly but entertainingly. The gradually evolving friendship of Shawn (Glenn Davis) and Matt (Chris Perfetti), unfolding over 12 years of the highs and lows of rooting for the Cleveland Cavaliers, is shot through with clever observations about how bros relate, or fail to. Observations, because Joseph doesn't seem to have much to say about how healthy these bromances are, or how to make them better or worse. He's just observing. Which he does well, with a keen awareness of the behaviors of healthy normal straight twenty- and thirtysomething dudes, a demographic not given a great deal of stage time lately.

He starts slowly, with a meet-cute first scene that could easily lose 15 pages. You would do well to consult your program, for Todd Rosenthal's Cleveland Heights wine bar set looks thoroughly contemporary, but it's 2004. Which explains why Matt, the bartender, is so befuddled by these things called texts. He's schooled in them by Shawn, who arrives trying to make a deal for the Cavs season tickets Matt wants to sell. The negotiation is instantly awkward, and remains so, especially with the white Matt falteringly attempting to indulge in street-bro talk with the Black Shawn. Perfetti is really good at this.

Joseph divulges the character details gradually, too gradually. Matt is selling his dad's tickets–which are especially valuable because this is LeBron James' first season with the Cavs, and everyone knows he'll be spectacular–because his dad can't attend games anymore and Matt needs the money. Amid all the chat about Kobe and Shaq and how amazing LeBron is going to be and the downside of being a "bandwagon fan," whatever that is, we find out that Matt feels severely underappreciated by his parents, owners of a frowzy antiques store; and Shawn, who has two menial jobs, has also made money as a short story writer, and may possess a future in that. They argue, mostly about basketball, and Matt ends every conflict with "See, this is the problem with America." He's an angry young man, a self-perceived victim, and Shawn, with looks, charm, negotiating skills, and a wide range of knowledge, would appear to be a popular young man. So it strains credibility when Shawn finally scores the tickets, then reveals he hasn't anyone to see the games with.

The second scene is so much better, and shorter, than the first. It's 2010, and Shawn and Matt have been attending Cavs games for seven seasons. LeBron has just announced he's signing with the Miami Heat, and the boys are furious about that. The scene kind of writes itself, except it takes a couple of pithy detours: Why do fans obsess about sports, anyway? Why is your team's victory your victory? John Updike wrote in some essay or other that you don't choose your team, your team chooses you. What exactly did he mean, and why is that? Some fun stupid-bro arguments surface on the derivation of the term "fan," and then...

I haven't mentioned the third cast member, Khloe Janel, billed as DJ, and that's what she is. From a little booth off to the side of the auditorium, she plays pre-, mid-, and post-show tracks, and cheers the crowd up. She had some Janet Jackson going at intermission (or, as the script has it, "halftime"), and it had some of the younger dudes in the house boogying in the aisle.

And it looked like a number of audience members left during that halftime. Don't. Surprises are in store, beginning with Rosenthal's set, which we thought was a unit but revolves to reveal the antiques store Matt's folks tended. Shawn works there now, though he's bound for L.A. for possible TV work, and Matt was doing well with something called Eastside, evidently a bar he ran, until he wasn't. LeBron's returning to Cleveland, and they have different reactions about that. But the yo-dude-whatever affection and mutual respect is clear. Joseph excels at bromance dialogue, and when the two get into a fight over a perceived racial slur, that rings true, too. The stage is set for the "fourth quarter," a bittersweet reunion two years later. Who's greater, LeBron or Michael Jordan? And when sports dudes talk sports, what's the subtext, what unspoken feelings are almost getting an airing?

Not a whole lot happens in King James, and if your natural habitat doesn't include a lot of colleagues like Matt and Shawn, their behavior can be a little mystifying. But Davis and Perfetti have a great rapport, with the unpredictable dialogue rhythms you hear from Matts and Shawns on the subway, and Kenny Leon's confident direction allows for some eloquent physical choreography–note the way they shake hands, then pat each other's backs twice, then bump fists. King James really isn't my kind of thing, and a working knowledge of layups and power forwards and the last 20 years of the NBA would probably help a lot. Anyhow, the basketball fans in the audience seemed to love it, and they represent a far younger, more diverse crowd than Manhattan Theatre Club typically draws. Let's cheer it for that.

King James
Through June 18, 2023
Manhattan Theatre Club
New York City Center Stage 1, 131 W. 55th St., New York NY Tickets online and current performance schedule: