King James’ center lies in basketball, but its heart encompasses a lot more

Photo by Michael Brosilow

King James, the world premiere now playing at Steppenwolf, is a big-hearted, well-written, beautifully performed examination of male bonding and friendship. It is (unfortunately) accurate to observe that a great percentage of male bonding occurs over sports obsessions, which create camaraderie and brotherhood that opens the door to communication. (Though women certainly have these obsessions as well, they are a lot less restricted by society’s strange rules about bonding with each other for multitudinous reasons.) What Rajiv Joseph’s play eloquently and entertainingly shows is that, once open, these doors do often lead to deep and long-lasting connections.

“Abbott Elementary’s” Chris Perfetti is perfectly cast as Matt, a young man with more schemes than plans for advancement in life. He has never been one for studying or working hard to succeed, laying his hopes and dreams on the possibility of the big score. He is also a lifelong Cleveland Cavaliers fan for whom the initial arrival of LeBron James to town was as exciting as the Second Coming. However, his financial condition mandates that he sell the season tickets that he inherited from his deceased father to pay his debts. This brings Shawn (Steppenwolf co-Artistic Director Glenn Davis) into his life.

Shawn is also a lifelong Clevelander and a huge Cavs fan. Unlike, Matt, though, who attended games throughout his childhood with his father, Shawn has never seen them live. It’s no huge surprise when their price negotiations over the ticket package leads to their becoming friends and even attending the games together.

Joseph’s dialogue is always sharp, whether focused on humor, bonding, or even anger, and takes us through the highs and lows of this relationship as we—and they—learn more about each other. Sports and personal affiliations can be effective connection-builders in a world that conspires to keep people apart, but the roller-coaster relationship between these two men illustrates that they can also be slender threads on which to build friendship. These two become great friends, but even after years have never shared many of the serious, personal things that women often can discover within weeks of beginning a friendship. Their bond remains skin-deep, as revealed by the way that it can so easily break down when James returns to Cleveland after his sojourn to Miami. This second coming thrills Shawn, who is willing to forgive and forget the betrayal he felt so keenly before, but not so for Matt, who is totally over LeBron.

Director Kenny Leon shows us the ease with which these men can slip into and out of a relationship through scenes taking place many years apart that utilize Todd Rosenthal’s dual set designs to enhance verisimilitude. Act One takes place in a posh wine bar that Matt is managing, while Act Two takes place in the sundries shop that his mother runs, one named after a stuffed Armadillo that serves as its mascot. Both sets are fun in completely different ways, as both Joseph and Leon are able to take this two-hander in many different visual directions.

At some points, the play seems to take it for granted that this kind of sports-based male relationship is shallower than the more comprehensive ones females build, but that is not the real story. Even when they are broken apart and not in each other’s lives for years, these men remain each other’s default people. They may never know each other as intimately as they could, but their friendship is nonetheless far from superficial. Men’s friendships are often still waters that run deep, and even when male egos get in the way they can maintain themselves running in the background like a software program you don’t actually check for long periods of time that takes up bandwidth you don’t even realize you are using. Men may not bond in the same ways as women, but nothing about that means that their bonding is less real. King James, while touching on issues like loss, betrayal, racism, and internalized pain, keeps that message alive and running in the foreground in a very funny, hugely entertaining, and emotional piece of theatre.

King James will run through April 10 at steppenwolf.org.

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