It takes a while to figure out if Rajiv Joseph’s latest play, “King James” — centered on two fans of the N.B.A. legend LeBron James — is actually about basketball.
This coproduction between Steppenwolf Theater, in Chicago, and Center Theater Group, in Los Angeles, arrives at the Manhattan Theater Club after runs in both of those cities. Similarly, like an imperfect play on the court, the plot travels quite a bit before making its shot. But with two emotionally precise performances agilely directed by Kenny Leon, Joseph’s latest rebounds from its initial inertia, revealing a touching examination of male friendship and the powerful social currents beneath it.
In 2004, Matt (Chris Perfetti), a Cleveland bartender, is trying to unload his season tickets to the Cavaliers’ home games after a bad investment leaves him needing cash fast. Despite not knowing how to check for texts on his Motorola Razr — one of the production’s clever pleasures is the way Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s sound design and Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design trace time through evolving cellphones and ringtones — he manages to arrange a meet-up with Shawn (Glenn Davis), a fledgling writer who’s just sold his first story.
Shawn offers Matt much less than the asking price, but, sensing a kindred devotion to the team’s then-rookie LeBron James, the two strike a deal and strike up a friendship — a wobbly one that the story checks in on over the course of James’ career. In 2010, when James left for the Miami Heat, a decision the friends see as treason, even as Shawn considers his own move. In 2014, with James’s prodigal return to the Cavs — news which Matt, now working at his family’s furniture store following another financial mistake, takes with more contempt than Shawn might like. And in 2016, with the team’s first championship win, worlds away from the friendship’s Bush-era beginnings.
A two-hander will almost always let the meat (be it sports, play dates or Idina Menzel obsessions) fall off as its thematic bones reveal themselves and, across those four scenes, James eventually takes his place as the catalyst for the duo’s deeper bond. But, however well acted, the interactions Joseph creates for them during the first act (2004 and 2010) are just a little too slight in their significance, leaving most of the show’s heft to the sturdier second act.
The inclusion of Khloe Janel as a D.J. — posted up 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 play’s core. Luckily, the perfectly cast Davis and Perfetti, whose physicality keenly conveys the toll of time passing, are intensely watchable, whether they’re discussing foul shots or failed ambitions.
At first, it doesn’t seem relevant to mention that Shawn is Black and Matt is white, because Joseph excels at letting this distinction inform the characters in a play where race doesn’t factor much, until it does. For the most part, Matt’s casual use of Black lingo can be chalked up to awkward passes at the basketball culture to which he wants to belong. And his pontifications on what he views as “the problems with America” — which he proposes are not reflected in professional basketball — are mostly just the vaguely righteous rumblings of an angry young white guy.
When tension does bubble up, during the play’s final encounter, it appears inevitable and is astutely observed without feeling writerly, showcasing Joseph’s mastery over the way everyday conversation can belie or reveal social realities. His work here is a strong analysis of friendship dynamics built along, but not hinged upon, the issues that divide them.
Through June 18 at New York City Center Stage I, Manhattan; nycitycenter.org. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.