The king in this new American play is basketball legend LeBron James who this month made headlines as his sport’s first active player to become a billionaire. If you don’t know what made James a four-time NBA champ and MVP – or what any of these initials mean – that’s no hindrance to Rajiv Joseph’s drama, a co-production with Chicago’s Steppenwolf company, which uses sporting fandom to consider home-town and national pride and prejudice.
Structured in four sections like a basketball game, it begins with ebullient DJ Khloe Janel at the side of the stage spinning Bruno Mars and Timbaland. Searchlights roam among the audience in the breaks between each quarter, accompanied by blazing rap tunes, giving a big-game atmosphere and bounce to what is an otherwise straightforward two-hander.
Matt (Chris Perfetti) has debts to pay and reluctantly puts his season tickets for the Cleveland Cavaliers up for sale. Shawn (Glenn Davis) has come into some cash and wants to see the Cavs up close, especially now they have LeBron James, the rookie who is the talk of the town. While haggling, the pair strike up a friendship although Shawn, who is black, quickly notes Matt’s white privilege and careless bias. There are some keen observations on how a player can forge a team’s and a town’s reputation, the emotional and economical investments made in them, and the sense of ownership fans have of their star players.
In this opening quarter, Matt and Shawn befriend each other just as Clevelanders are taking James into their hearts. Joseph then provides a parallel, with too much signposting, between the pair’s despair at James’s signing to Miami Heat and Matt’s unease at Shawn’s move to New York to study screenwriting. Perfetti catches the right needling tone to make “I’m happy for you” emphasise how sorry he really feels for himself.
Joseph develops these best friends’ relationship not just with each other but with the superstar player who provokes feelings of betrayal and heartbreak more commonly reserved for partners. It all intersects in a well-executed second-half exchange when what starts as another bit of fanatical baseball analysis leaves Shawn aggrieved and Matt in denial, with a chasm between them.
Both actors give resonant performances under Kenny Leon’s direction, and Matt’s parents are subtly evoked through Todd Rosenthal’s set design which rotates in the second half to reveal their overstuffed bric-a-brac emporium. Shawn’s family background is less well drawn but Davis excels when delivering a childhood memory of watching the Cavs in his family’s basement, tickets to the match going damp in his hand, after his father was unable to leave work in time to take him there.
It’s not the fullest answer to these fans’ familiar cry of despair (“why do we do this?”), and James’s magic on the court could be more powerfully poeticised. But Joseph goes some distance in assessing the fervour of sporting obsession, the crushing lows and the endless promise of the next game, conjured by the alluring smell of fresh tickets.