King James

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Photo: Craig Schwartz Review
As we’ve all experienced in life, some of our deepest friendships were formed by a common interest or experience, forged in just a moment of connection, and have disintegrated – permanently or temporarily – as suddenly and swiftly as they began.

Intriguingly, this harsh reality of life has recently been examined in a pair of two-character plays, both currently being presented in New York by Manhattan Theatre Club: David Auburn’s “Summer, 1976,” now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, and Rajiv Joseph’s “King James,” now at NY City Center Stage 1. Both works are exquisitely acted and thoughtfully plotted but may resonate differently with different audiences.

First things first, “King James” has nothing to do with the British monarchy; the royalty here is basketball legend Lebron James, whose presence on the Cleveland Cavaliers brings together two of that city’s residents: Matt (the excellent Chris Perfetti), a semi-spoiled man-child being forced by his parents to sell off the family’s season tickets to pay off some debts, and Shawn (a truly superb Glenn Davis), a would-be buyer who can’t match Matt’s price – not by a longshot – but ends up gaining both the seats and a seatmate, thereby kicking off a series of events that span over a dozen years.

Fear not if you don’t know a dribble from a dunk, the play doesn’t require a lot of knowledge of the sport being discussed or even the “title character.” One must, however, understand and embrace the idea of passionate fandom –something I suspect most viewers have about a sport, a TV show, or even a politician – to fully appreciate how this unlikely pair bond.

Still, from the get-go, it seems almost a given that this tenuous chain will eventually break, and we may immediately guess it will have to do with the fact that Matt is White and Shawn is African American. But race doesn’t even become part of their conversation until the third of the play’s shortish scenes, and when it does, it clearly takes Matt by surprise and puts him on the defensive. Perfetti and Davis play this pivotal exchange to perfection – further proof of both their talents and just how brilliantly director Kenny Leon works with actors.

Intriguingly, the pair have plenty of other things to drive a wedge between them, most notably, a constantly changing shift in each other’s fortunes. Still, Shawn’s anger over Matt’s seemingly thoughtless comment brings a lifetime of resentment to the surface -- and acts as a potent reminder for all of us to think twice before we speak, no matter who we’re speaking to.

Intriguingly, while “Summer 1976” struck me as too static, “King James” could have been treated with a little more delicacy. The use of an in-house DJ (Khloe Janel) before the show and at intermission (which I think is meant to substitute for a basketball game’s halftime) struck me as both superfluous and irritating.

Moreover, the intermission really interrupts the play’s flow; we’ve just begun to really know –and like – these two characters when we’re asked to leave them for 15 minutes, which proves to be enough time to almost forget why we care about them at all.

That said, the intermission may be necessary to fully create one of the greatest set changes currently on any New York stage: Todd Rosenthal has created a wonderfully detailed re-creation of a ritzy wine bar for the show’s first two scenes, only to top himself by the reveal of the cluttered bric-a-brac shop owned by Matt’s parents (which is referenced earlier in the play), where the final two pivotal scenes take place.

Still, if Rosenthal’s “pictures” paint a thousand words, Joseph’s words speak louder. Once again, this invaluable playwright shoots – and scores!
By Brian Scott Lipton

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Open/Close Dates
Opening 5/16/2023
Closing Open-ended

Theatre Info
New York City Center
131 W. 55th Street
New York, NY 10019