‘King James’ Off Broadway Review: Why LeBron James Inspires Adult-Male Infantilism

Two basketball fans obsess about their idol in Rajiv Joseph’s new play

Glenn Davis and Chris Perfetti in "King James" Off Broadway
"King James" (Credit: Craig Schwartz Photography)

There is an absorbing drama to be written with all the material that happens offstage between the four acts of “King James,” a new two-hour play written by Rajiv Joseph.  

Here, King James is LeBron James, and he brings two basketball fans living in Cleveland, Ohio, together when Shawn (Glenn Davis) wants to purchase a season’s series of Cavaliers tickets that Matt (Chris Perfetti) desperately wants to sell in the year 2004. A lot happens during the one intermission and the two black-outs that follow that meet-cute opening.

Here’s what we don’t see but we’re told about in “King James”: While the two men become good friends, Shawn also strikes up a close relationship with Matt’s parents, which Matt resents, because Mom and Dad have always treated him dismissively. Apparently, Matt’s parents have a change of heart during the intermission and lend him a lot of money to start a bar-restaurant. Meanwhile, Shawn goes off to college in New York City, and is able to parlay that education into a writer job on a successful TV series for three seasons. Matt’s father dies, Matt’s mother then marries another man, and, least surprising of all, Matt’s business goes belly up.

The play had its New York premiere Tuesday at MTC’s New York City Center Stage 1 following productions in Chicago and Los Angeles.

Onstage, the two characters talk a lot about basketball and the major controversy of their respective fandom: Who is the better player, LeBron James or Michael Jordan? Shawn also sees his own manhood undermined when James departs the hometown Cleveland team for the Miami Heat in 2010.

With each scene, the two men radically change their respective economic status. In one scene, Matt is condescending and patronizing. In another, Shawn has the clear upper-hand. Despite their differences, they never stop talking about what unites them: basketball, with Shawn exhibiting clear signs of infantilism even before James departs for Miami.

Davis (excellent in last season’s “Downstate”) doesn’t have much a role to play here, although that could be Joseph’s point. Men who worship athletes (or rock stars or rappers) often don’t have a lot going on in their own life, and so must fill up that void with a fantasy alter-ego. Playing a rather amiable bigot, Perfetti has much more to work with character-wise, and brings a sly quirkiness to his line readings, as well as his often spasmodic movements. Perfetti gives the impression that Matt is up to something. Exactly what that is we never learn. Regardless, his performance imbues this production with what little suspense there is.

Not explored very much is what happens to Shawn in Los Angeles when he lands a job on the writing team of a successful TV series, the very premise of which is so ridiculous (maybe even a little racist) that it provokes the play’s biggest, longest splurge of laughter from the audience. Did Shawn take the job out of economic desperation? If so, why did he stay for three seasons? Is he more concerned with monetary success than moral integrity? In the end, the TV show is on a level with Matt’s white privilege: Both are there to turn Shawn into little more than a punching bag.

Kenny Leon directs, following his far more exciting work in last season’s “Topdog/Underdog” and “Ohio State Murders.” In what is fast becoming a cliché, a DJ (the very ebullient Khloe Janel) provides entertainment before the curtain and during the intermission and scene changes. The robust music is odd here, because the two realistic settings, by designer Todd Rosenthal, are a wine bar and a curios shop, both of which are devoid of customers.