Review: At Steppenwolf Theatre, King James Is All About Friendship, Heartbreak and Basketball

It seems like it’s all about basketball but it really isn’t—until it finally is. King James, the wickedly funny world premiere play by Rajiv Joseph, is on stage at Steppenwolf Theatre to give us something else to think about during these dark times. Direction by Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway, ‘Hairspray Live” on NBC-TV) gets to the heart of the story with two strong actors.

Joseph, a Cleveland native and Steppenwolf ensemble member (author of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and Guards at the Taj), writes with affection about his down-at-the-heels home town. Cleveland is a rust-belt city that desperately needs both economic and emotional uplift. That begins when the future king, LeBron James, a local boy, joins the beloved Cavs (Cavaliers) for his rookie season in 2003-04.

King James is a buddy play in the best sense of that term. Matt (Chris Perfetti) who manages a cellar wine bar named, of course, La Cave du Vin, has the family season tickets for the Cavs’ last 19 games and he needs to unload them to pay his debts. Shawn (Glenn Davis), struggling to become a writer while holding two part-time jobs, comes in to the bar to buy tickets for a game or two (Shaq, Kobe and the Lakers will be in next week) but Matt insists he’ll only sell them as a package. The two super-fans argue about great Cavs players, about who was the greatest point guard of all time (Isaiah, for sure, Matt argues) and whether LeBron is a better player than Jordan (he’s a rookie, how could he be, Shawn says. Doesn’t matter It’s implicational, Matt concludes). After fierce negotiation and by scene’s end, Shawn has two seats for each of those 19 games for the price he had in mind. He has no one to take to the games, so maybe ….?

Third quarter, in Armand’s. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Shawn and Matt do go to those games together and a great friendship begins, initiated by basketball and nurtured by Matt’s family informally adopting Shawn. Two dudes, one Black and one white, from different backgrounds, become fast friends and share personal and basketball joys and traumas over the years.

The four-scene play is set in four quarters: 2004, 2010, 2014, 2016. If you know your NBA history, you ‘ll know those last three dates are landmarks: LeBron deserts Cleveland for Miami (he’s ridiculed for saying :”I’m going to take my talents to South Beach”); the prodigal son returns to the Cavs; and the Cavs win their first NBA championship. In fact, it’s Cleveland’s first sports championship of any kind since 1964.

Two of the four quarters are set in the funky vintage and upholstery store owned by Matt’s family.(Scenic design credit goes to Todd Rosenthal.)  The store is Armand’s, named for the stuffed armadillo in the window. During the 12-year span of King James, Matt and Shawn age a bit, Matt makes money on his new Eastside bar and Shawn has some success as a TV writer. He’s living in LA by Q4 where he sees game 7 of the 2016 NBA finals against 2015 champs the Golden State Warriors (Steph Curry is point guard, ex-Bull Steve Kerr is coach!). By play’s end, the two friends are celebrating. And Cleveland has some mojo.

Davis and Perfetti. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

(Playwright Joseph chose to end the chronology before 2018, when King James deserted Cleveland again, this time for the Lakers, where he won his fourth NBA championship ring in 2020.)

King James has a whipsmart script with dialogue masterfully handled by the two sterling actors. Davis, an artistic director of Steppenwolf, has appeared there in Downstate, The Christians and many other productions as well in the US and abroad. Perfetti is an experienced Broadway and TV actor, currently appearing in the new ABC comedy, “Abbott Elementary.” An extra pleasure for theatergoers is the DJ performance by Khloe Janel, who plays an arena-style setlist before the play begins and at intermission.

Now the key question I have to address with you is whether you will enjoy this play if you’re not a basketball fan. Clearly, Steppenwolf has a commercial success on its hands and it’s a funny, warm-hearted play. But if you’re not familiar with all those single-named basketball figures and if you are not sure what a fadeaway jumper or a skyhook are, then you might not enjoy it as much as a basketball lover would. However, the NBA season continues and March Madness has started and continues through April 4 with the NCAA championship game, so you can get educated with a lot of basketball and still see King James.

King James continues at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., through April 10. Tickets are $20-$88 for performances Tuesday-Sunday. Running time is 115 minutes with one intermission. For more information on this and other productions, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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