The title of Rajiv Joseph’s newest play, “King James”—having its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum through July 3—refers to basketball player LeBron James, who joined the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003. The story is not about James, but rather a developing friendship between two young Cleveland men brought together when James joins their favorite team and one of them needs to unload his season tickets. The entire play consists of masterful dialogue between the two men spanning a decade—following the rhythms of both life and basketball.
Not that you have to be a basketball fan to appreciate the play or the friendship. Someone who has only heard of James in passing can easily follow the sports references and appreciate the back-and-forth between Shawn (Glenn Davis) and Matt (Chris Perfetti) on the value of sports in their lives—an exploratory theme running through the play.
Besides witty and engrossing dialogue, the strength of the play is in its structure. While years may have passed each time we see Shawn and Matt, it’s like we pick up where we left off, though they are at different stages of their lives and careers. Any backfilling of their stories unfolds naturally during each of the play’s four scenes. The overall structure is akin to a basketball game—two halves, each divided into two quarters—complete with a DJ (Khloe Janel) providing upbeat music, including the national anthem, and searchlights dancing over the audience during a break.
Directed by Kenny Leon, the two actors captivate the audience from beginning to end through nuanced delivery of often amusing and sometimes tense talk about life that not only includes basketball but their parents, jobs, fleeting girlfriends—and dreams. That’s where James figures in. With his talent, the Cavaliers have a chance to win and so do the two men in their own ways. Perceptive and loquacious Matt wants to open a club whereas emotionally demonstrative Shawn has writerly aspirations. Their difference is summed up when Shawn says “alone” and Matt hears “lonely.”
When James suddenly leaves the Cavaliers in 2010, we experience its force like a tidal shift on the two men—especially Shawn—as if the moon has left its orbit. James’s just-as-unexpected return to the Cavs in 2014 sparks a heated racial debate between the two (now more mature) men. Shawn, who is Black, takes exception to a comment by Matt, who is white, on James not knowing “his place.” Shawn also shares his experience as a Black man working in a mostly white writer’s room in Los Angeles.
The debates work because we like and respect both men for their boyish earnestness. And despite their differences, they are drawn to each other through the years. Basketball becomes a metaphoric field on which to play out their competing views while creating camaraderie. Their lives reflect the ebbs and flows of the game, one side scoring, then the other moving ahead, players coming and going. Their conversations are similarly cadenced, as if one dribbles an invisible ball before passing it to the other, who takes an unexpectedly humorous shot while the other gets the rebound, dribbling and passing again.
Sets (designed by Todd Rosenthal) work interestingly with the story in that they don’t really fit the characters. The first half is set in a wine bar where Matt works—allowing a hilarious moment when both men guzzle glasses of red after James announces his departure from the Cavs. The second half is set in Matt’s parents’ secondhand store where each of the men works at different points, filled with treasures like a globe bar-cart and surprisingly poignant stuffed armadillo.
Both spaces develop an air of coziness as the two men share their lives, becoming vulnerable to each other along the way. “King James” is thus a gem of a production, with highly engaging dialogue by likable characters taking unexpected though satisfying turns—all delivered by two exceptional actors in Davis and Perfetti. This is one game you don’t want to miss.
“King James” continues at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, through July 3, with performances Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets range from $35 to $100 and can be purchased by calling (213) 628-2772 or visiting CenterTheatreGroup.org. Proof of vaccination and masks required. Run time is two hours with intermission.