In 2010, LeBron James announced that he would take his talents to South Beach, sending fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers sailing through the five stages of grief. The decision by basketball’s hottest star to abandon his hometown franchise took on a metaphorical weight that transcended just basketball–here, it seemed to say, was another person content to give up on the rust belt of Northeast Ohio at its most economically and culturally vulnerable moment. The choice ripples through the relationship of the two men at the center of King James, a low-stakes comedy about bros and buckets by Rajiv Joseph, now receiving its New York premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center Stage I.
“He gave Cleveland the finger on national TV,” Shawn (Glenn Davis) opines to his buddy Matt (Chris Perfetti), as they drown their sorrows in a bottle of cabernet at the faux-chic wine bar where Matt works. (Todd Rosenthal designed the impressive sets.) “He’s from here.” LeBron’s southern migration also represents a turning point for the men, who came together over their shared passion for the Cavs and appear to have little else in common. This sort of casual companionship is not uncommon among straight men–built on shared interests more than emotional closeness–but although Joseph crafts a slick, fast-moving portrait of two lost souls bound by basketball, the end result feels like the friendship itself: amiable, but anonymous.
Soon, Shawn leaves Cleveland himself, intent on pursuing a career as a screenwriter. Matt, a budding restaurateur, experiences his share of highs and lows. LeBron eventually returns to Cleveland, leading the Cavs to a dazzling victory in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The two men experience elation and heartbreak in equal measure. Ultimately, LeBron left Cleveland once again, joining the Lakers in 2018, but the action of the play ends before his second, less controversial departure.
Joseph flirts with weightier issues throughout the play, not least of which the unspoken tension of a friendship between a white man and a Black man that hinges on the idolization of a sport that has historically exploited Black excellence to line white pockets. The closest the action comes to feeling genuinely charged is in the play’s third scene, where a long-simmering resentment between Matt and Shawn bubbles to the surface after Matt uses a racist term to describe LeBron’s career trajectory. But the moment is fleeting, and even though the pair remain on the outs in the work’s long final scene, Joseph offers a tidy, unsatisfying resolution.
Otherwise, Matt and Shawn spend most of their time trading stats and dropping names in a manner designed to amuse an audience already in the know. This is the type of play where references to Brad Daugherty or Mark Price elicit a knowing nod and serve as a shorthand for establishing a bond between the characters and a sense of place. For the second time this season, Manhattan Theatre Club has also brought in an unnecessary DJ (here, Khloe Janel, who appears to be an actor primarily) to hype up the audience before the performance, but it makes even less sense than it did for The Collaboration.
Davis and Perfetti are both skilled actors, and they achieve individual moments of clarity throughout, but they largely avoid doing any specific work to suggest the tight bond that forms between the men in the years that elapse between the play’s four scenes. (The action progresses from 2004 to 2016 over the course of two hours.) Kenny Leon directs with a mellow, somewhat static hand. If the goal here is to celebrate the uncomplicated nature of heterosexual male bonding, the result still seems fairly blank.
If I knew more about basketball, I’d try to work some clever zinger into my kicker. King James goes for a dunk off the backboard, but ends up fumbling the layup. Sound convincing? Not really. But my sad attempt gets to the heart of the game, and its fans, about as deeply as this pallid play.