June 6, 2023

It’ll take a while to find out if Rajiv Joseph’s latest play, “King James” — which centers on two fans of NBA legend LeBron James — is Actually about basketball.

This co-production between Steppenwolf Theater, in Chicago, and Center Theater Group, in Los Angeles, arrives at the Manhattan Theater Club after performances in both cities. Likewise, as an imperfect play on the field, the plot travels quite a bit before making its shot. But with two emotionally accurate performances, deftly directed by Kenny Leon, Joseph’s latest recovers from its initial inertia to reveal a moving exploration of male friendship and the powerful social currents beneath it.

In 2004, Cleveland bartender Matt (Chris Perfetti) tries to empty his season tickets to the Cavaliers’ home games after a bad investment leaves him in need of some quick cash. Despite not knowing how to search for lyrics on his Motorola Razr – one of the clever joys of the production is the way Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s sound design and Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design trace time through evolving mobile phones and ringtones – he manages to arrange a meeting with Shawn (Glenn Davis), a young writer who has just sold his first story.

Shawn offers Matt much less than the asking price, but sensing a kindred commitment to the team’s rookie at the time, LeBron James, the two strike a deal and strike up a friendship – a wobbly one that checks the story in James’ course. ‘ career. In 2010, when James left for the Miami Heat, a decision the friends consider a betrayal, even though Shawn considers his own move. In 2014, with James’ lost return to the Cavs – news that Matt, now working at his family’s furniture store after another financial mishap, takes it with more disdain than Shawn might like. And in 2016, with the team’s first championship win, the worlds are far from the start of the Bush-era friendship.

A two-hander will almost always drop the flesh (be it sports, playdates or Idina Menzel obsessions) when the thematic bones reveal themselves and in those four scenes, James ultimately takes his place as the catalyst for the deeper bond of the duo. . But as well-acted as it is, the interactions Joseph creates for them during Acts 1 (2004 and 2010) are just a little too minor in their meaning, leaving most of the show’s weight to the sturdier Act 2.

The inclusion of Khloe Janel as a DJ—posted by the audience, away from the stage—playing requisite jock jams and period-appropriate Usher hits during transitions hypes up the love of the game, but obscures the core of the piece. Fortunately, the perfectly cast Davis and Perfetti, whose physicality sharply conveys the toll of the passage of time, are intensely watchable whether they’re talking about misfires or failed ambitions.

At first, it seems irrelevant to mention that Shawn is black and Matt is white, because Joseph excels at making this distinction for the characters in a play where race doesn’t matter much until it does. Matt’s casual use of Black language can be largely attributed to awkward passes to the basketball culture he wants to belong to. And his pontifications about what he considers “America’s troubles”—which he says aren’t reflected in professional basketball—are mostly just the vaguely righteous rumblings of an angry young white man.

When the tension bubbles up during the play’s final encounter, it seems inevitable and is astutely observed without the sense of being a writer, demonstrating Joseph’s mastery of how everyday conversation can disown or reveal social reality. His work here is a strong analysis of the friendship dynamic that builds on, but doesn’t depend on, the issues that divide them.

King James
Through June 18 at New York City Center Stage I, Manhattan; nycitycenter.org. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.