“King James,” a new dramedy at the Mark Taper Forum, is a two-hander about a love triangle of sorts. The unseen third point in this romance, per the title: basketball legend LeBron James, whose on-again, off-again status as a hometown hero with the Cleveland Cavaliers over a period of 12 years is the catalyst and constant trigger for a friendship between a couple of true believers in Northeast Ohio. The dynamics between these two can shift almost as suddenly as the sports superstar’s own fickle team loyalty. This is no tragic romance, though. Playwright Rajiv Joseph (“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”) reveals himself as a true believer, too, if not in LeBron, then in the value of non-toxic male friendship. Some cynical eruptions aside, the play has come to praise the power of hoop dreams to help lonely men bond, not bury it, and any ticketholders who’ve logged a lot more time at L.A.’s former Staples Center than the Music Center may leave feeling validated by their night at the theater.
Initially, they seem like an odd couple, these two — Matt (Chris Perfetti of ABC’s “Abbott Elementary”), whom we first meet anxiously looking to unload some Cavaliers season tickets, and Shawn (Glenn Davis, an artistic director of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company), who shows up in the wine bar Matt tends, looking for a bargain. The former character is white and the latter Black, but that won’t even be mentioned until a flareup well into the second act, and even then, an argument about race becomes more of a pointed detour than a sudden revelation of what the play is really about. What instead becomes apparent over the course of a couple of acts is how similar these guys are, despite the constant role reversals that Joseph engineers for them. Under the skin, they’re both good-hearted naifs, in ways that don’t always ring true but do always ring kind of sweet.
From a relatively well-off family but caught in a bout of economic distress, Matt is willing to sell his highly sought tickets for the remainder of LeBron’s galvanizing rookie-of-the-year season to Shawn for thousands of dollars under market value because it’s 2004 and he’s still terrified of using the Internet. That may feel like the first of many contrivances, but Matt’s technophobia does give him a reason to spend a lot of time opening up to the stranger who’s comes into his otherwise empty bar. (You get the sense his garrulousness may have scared all other customers off.) And, of course, when the play starts fast-fowarding through the years, it also sets up an inevitable running gag where Matt has become a smartphone addict. Shawn, meanwhile, grew up poorer and theoretically street-smarter, but he turns out to be a sweetheart, too, who doesn’t even seem embarrassed when he admits that, despite being a lifelong Cavs fanatic, he’s never even been to a game, and has to ask basic protocol questions about what one does inside an arena. When he successfully negotiates for the tickets, Shawn has the enraptured face of a man who’s just seen the promised land — but it’s never dawned on him that if he’s buying tickets by the pair, he might need somebody to invite. And with that, a beautiful friendship and buddy dramedy are born.
That’s the first quarter of “King James” — a production that, yes, has been neatly and symbolically divided into basketball-style fourths, to the point you could almost consider it a very compact four-act play. The first two parts take place in that wine bar; the concluding couple of sections are set in an upholstery and knick-knack shop owned by Matt’s mother, where either man may end up working as their fortunes and interests shift over a span of a dozen years. That shift in locale comes like a breath of fresh air after intermission, since Todd Rosenthal’s set design for the eccentric storefront is way more fun to look at than all those dull wine bottles in the first half. But just about everything about the show gets a big lift in the second act, actually. Maybe that’s a natural function of Joseph finally allowing his characters to get into some serious arguments in these latter phases. But the comic parts of the writing get a lot sharper as it goes along, too. Shawn comes back to Cleveland from Hollywood and the terrible cop show he’s become a staffer on becomes a source of knowing laughs and, then, some trenchant commentary about racial attitudes in writers’ rooms.
How “King James” handles race, once it belatedly but then firmly addresses it, may be a matter of discussion and disagreement among those who see it. Without giving too much away, Matt makes a remark about the basketball hero that betrays a sense of entitlement that seems to elevate fans even above the multi-millionaire ballplayers they slavishly follow, and Shawn is quick to catch it. The debate that follows is heated enough that you may think all of the comedy that preceded it was a feint on the playwright’s part, to lure you into a topical treatise on why we all can’t just get along, after all. That this matter is effectively dropped in the final quarter, in the interest of teamwork prevailing under the buzzer, is a little bit disappointing — yet it also feels like Joseph being true to his characters, as they’ve been set up. So call that one a draw.
What won’t be debated is how good Chris Perfetti and Glenn Davis are in these roles, under the direction of Kenny Leon (whose 2014 Tony win for “A Raisin in the Sun” barely scratches the surface of his August-Wilson-to-“Hairspray-Live!” breadth). Perfetti’s Matt is a little more manic and crotchety, and Davis’ Shawn a bit smoother and more even-tempered, until he finds a real reason for righteous anger. But they’ve been written more for what they have in common, really, than for what sets them apart, which puts an extra burden on the actors to subtly accentuate the temperamental differences that have been baked in, which they do quite wonderfully.
In answer to the critical question for on-the-bubble theatergoers of whether you need to be a sports fan to appreciate “King James,” the answer is decidedly no. Joseph has probably gone out of his way not to make the script too inside-baseball; if anything, it maybe could’ve used a few more random Cavaliers or Cleveland references that didn’t anything to do with LeBron to further establish the milieu. (Joseph is a former Clevelander himself, so the decision not to get too hyper-local with his dialogue was a deliberate one.) In the end, it’s probably relatable enough, too, to anyone who ever bonded with a BFF over a TV show or film franchise, only for one to feel a little bit more betrayed than the other by that piece of entertainment jumping the shark, and wondering if you ever really knew that person at all.
But there’s little disputing that sports bonding — or bondage? — is on an entirely different level for most, and the idea that it’s the stuff that makes and potentially breaks relationships is not among the stretches that come up in the play. If Joseph finally lands on celebrating the thrill and not the agony of fandom and its attendant friendships, it seems forgivable in how tenderly the final sections play out. Not to undersell what a challenge Perfetti has in playing these scenes, where he’s required to comically hide his ongoing, secret devotion to the Cavs under about a dozen bushels, but Davis is the one delivering the unalloyed passion, contagiously. It’s his face, in some of these winning final scenes, that makes you believe an underdog team’s long-delayed redemption could be a feeling more rapturous than religion and sex combined.