KING JAMES Lands In Center Court — Review
If there’s one big reason why Kenny Leon’s name has grown so ubiquitous in recent years, it is surely his skill with actors. The Tony Award-winning director has built up an impressive track record in drawing out precise, vulnerable work from big name performers. He did it this season with Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, both equal parts frightening and hilarious in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog; then did it again with Audra McDonald, so devastating in Adrienne Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders.
Leon’s work can leave you wanting, though, in the worlds he builds around these faultless performers. His Topdog felt sluggish when it needed to be heart-racing, while Ohio’s was a visually half-formed attempt at something more lyrical. Leon’s productions can feel a bit flat, a bit overly literal, often leaving his tremendous performers to carry the burden.
All of these past tendencies are on full display in King James, opening last night at New York City Center in a Manhattan Theatre Club production (following previous stops at the Steppenwolf in Chicago and Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles). It’s a witty and moving new play from Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo), here given a slackly paced staging by Leon yet held up by two wonderful theater stalwarts, Glenn Davis and Chris Perfetti, both at the top of their game.
King James traces 12 years in the friendship of Shawn and Matt (Davis and Perfetti), two Cleveland natives bonded by a shared Cleveland Cavaliers fandom and, most especially, a fascination with basketball icon LeBron James. The pair first meet in 2004, just as the newly minted Rookie of the Year is beginning his ascent. Matt is selling the remainder of his Cavs season ticket package to pay off debts. Meanwhile Shawn has come into some money after selling his first piece of writing. As they haggle over price, the two form a connection, albeit in that very straight male sort of way – adversarial as often as intimate. King James then follows the friendship over three more “quarters,” each set a few years after the last, as Shawn and Matt’s respective fortunes rise and fall.
Joseph’s text most excels as an affectionate analysis of male friendship. These are two loving, vulnerable guys. Shawn is insecure about his writing; Matt is wounded by past failures and his parents’ disappointment. They mostly talk around their pain. Perfetti is pleasingly chaotic, bouncing around nervously, always something to prove. Davis is calmer but increasingly frustrated with his friend’s self-centeredness, a tension that builds naturally. Joseph does not over-egg the contrasts between the pair. They just keep on pushing through together, rough patches be damned – in friendship, as in fandom. Davis and Perfetti have done this play three times now and find great riches in those unspoken understandings.
The actors have a harder time selling the schism between the two in the third act, which follows Matt making an offensive, racially charged comment about their hero. Joseph lays the groundwork to some extent, with Shawn wincing at but ignoring many a micro aggression in earlier scenes. But the comment itself sounds unnatural coming out of Matt’s mouth, and the ensuing argument is a bit neat in how it ties their previous tensions in with this remark. Still, we’ve come to feel for these two, and it’s impossible not to get invested in them figuring it out.
That last act is where Leon really lets the proceedings fizzle. The pair’s final reunion should feel more emotional, especially given the historic day it falls upon - but the pacing never picks up, and there’s too many disjointed pauses. The fandom element also drops out of Joseph’s text for a while. But Davis and Perfetti sell it hard, and when fandom and friendship finds a perfect synchronicity once again, they soar.
King James is now in performance at Manhattan Theatre Club through June 18, 2023. For tickets and more information, visit here.