‘King James,’ Steppenwolf’s amusing take on basketball bros, a one-on-one worth watching
The stakes are low, the entertainment value high as two Clevelanders connect and clash over the course of LeBron James’ career.
With his new play “King James,” Rajiv Joseph has inked the epitome of a new-ish genre, mixing the male-bonding bromance story with enough crisply energetic humor to earn the label brom-com, a bro-centered romantic comedy, of the platonic variety.
Boy meets boy. Boys develop different opinions about basketball player LeBron James. Boys (OK, men) stay friends.
And although thinly premised, “King James” charms from start to finish in an impeccable Steppenwolf production directed by Kenny Leon and with spot-on performances from Glenn Davis (the theater’s co-artistic director) and Chris Perfetti (currently on the TV show “Abbott Elementary”).
When: Through April 10
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 1 hour and 55 minutes with one intermission
Leon pumps up the adrenaline pre-curtain with the addition of a DJ, Khloe Janel, who even provides a full-length national anthem as the lights go down. It’s an ultra-smart choice, feeding directly into the start of the first scene, where Perfetti’s Matt, a bored bartender in an empty Cleveland wine bar, rolls up a newspaper and shoots it towards the wastebasket in a moment of ordinary but relatable fantasy.
Enter Davis as the character Shawn, who has come to the bar in hopes of scoring the remaining season tickets for the Cavaliers that Matt needs to sell to pay off debts from a bad investment. It’s 2004, LeBron James is a rookie sensation and, having grown up in Ohio, a hometown hero.
Matt has held season tickets since he was 6; Shawn has never been to a game. Matt, white and middle class, dreams of escaping his parents’ grip—they own their own re-upholstery shop—and opening up his own “establishment.” Shawn, Black and with far fewer expectations of family support, is a budding writer who has just published his first short story.
They have little in common, except a shared passion for the Cleveland Cavaliers and a shared disdain for “bandwagon” fans who cared little for the team until James gave them a shot at winning. For Matt and Shawn, the Cavs have always been a source of comfort, filling a void of loneliness. To them, James’ arrival is a potential culmination, an earned reward for years of dedicated and unrewarded fandom.
Over four scenes—in the script, Joseph refers to them as “quarters”—the friendship evolves, following the uneven ups and downs of Matt’s and Shawn’s careers, as well as James’. The roller coaster ride of Cavaliers fandom is captured with scenes that occur at key turning points: when James abandons Cleveland for better opportunities (both in terms of team and media) in Miami, when he comes back, and when he leads the Cavaliers to their first-ever championship.
A gentle, sweet and amusing take on male friendship, “King James” never gets especially dramatic or suspenseful or even meaningful. The sources of tension between Matt and Shawn rarely seem serious, except perhaps when Matt suggests that James, whom he has never forgiven for leaving Cleveland to begin with, should “know his place.” But Joseph, beyond acknowledging it, never digs very deeply into the racial connotations of such a comment or how it may also reflect a quality of Matt and Shawn’s friendship. In the end, at least in “King James,” sports provides a language that unifies and heals, that enables men to express emotions and build bonds that transcend social and economic differences.
Those familiar with the prolific Joseph’s growing oeuvre of plays—particularly better-known works such as Pulitzer finalist “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” (produced by Lookingglass in 2013) and “Guards at the Taj” (produced by Steppenwolf in 2018)—might be expecting a bit more theatricality, thematic darkness or sociopolitical-aesthetic-spiritual contemplation mixed in with brisk and witty dialogue. (“King James” actually has more in common with Joseph’s “Lake Effect,” which premiered at Chicago’s Silk Road Rising in 2013 and shares the Cleveland setting, a friendship between two men, a family business, and a straight-up naturalistic style.)
But despite, or perhaps because of its modesty, “King James” is very appealing, maximally relatable, and likely highly commercial. There’s a quality here that makes the play especially breezy and fun to watch. I think it’s the convergence of text and subtext—on the surface, the dialogue is about sports, and how men talk about sports is also the underlying thematic exploration.
What you see is what you get. And what you get is pleasurable.