Chris Perfetti is terrified.
The actor, known to the general public as the awkwardly endearing teacher Jacob Hill on the mockumentary sitcom Abbott Elementary, recently returned to the New York theatre scene in Rajiv Joseph's King James, now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club. This production marks the third time Perfetti has starred in the two-hander about LeBron James fans. He originated the role of Matt in 2022, but the familiarity seems to only add to the pressure he puts on the experience.
"I was terrified that we'd be able to see everything coming, or that it would not surprise me anymore," Perfetti explains, referring to the mental weight in returning to the show yet again. "It's such an intense, concentrated experience, and a real immersion in a very specific world." Thankfully, with the help of New York audiences and his scene partner, Glenn Davis, Perfetti has kept the show feeling fresh.
"Glenn and I have a real confidence about who these characters are." An accomplished actor, Davis is also the artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where King James originated. He and Perfetti have fostered a sense of exploration with one another that safeguards against the material becoming rote. "It's usually the case with me that once a play closes, I get all of my best ideas after that. I'm like, 'oh, that's what that was', or 'that's what that meant.' Usually, you don't get to do anything with that information. On this third go-around, we've been able to tweak and fine tune and and really deepen what we did the first time."
It makes sense that the meaning of certain references would become clearer for Perfetti with each pass. While the actor is playing a deeply invested basketball fanatic in King James, Perfetti considers his experience with the sport to be "minimal to non existent" before diving into Joseph's play. Taking place over a period of 14 years, the play traces the bond between two friends, Shawn and Matt, as they debate the future legacy of basketball superstar LeBron James as one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
Through working on the piece, Perfetti has become an ardent fan of the sport, and of James—who is currently competing for his fifth NBA championship, narrowing the gap between him and Michael Jordan (who brought in six championships during his playing career).
"All I can think about right now is the Lakers and LeBron!" Perfetti laughs. "It's pretty incredible. This play is one of the best plays I've ever encountered, and I really think it stands on its own but the backdrop it has right now is particularly interesting. It's bringing a kind of buoyancy and energy to the story that I feel like is really serving it."
Through their connection via basketball, the two characters in King James are able to express their emotions toward one another as their relationship ebbs and flows throughout the years. Structured in four extended scenes (like the four quarters of a basketball game), King James is, at its core, a tribute to friendship and the unpredictability of life.
"I find it so hard to describe this play to people," Perfetti confesses. "It's about how the world takes you, and rocks you, and builds you up, and knocks you back down. You really get to see a large swath of what makes someone who they are."
Perfetti is doing the play in-between seasons of Abbott Elementary, which recently completed its second season, making him a household name. Luckily, King James' Matt and Abbott Elementary's Jacob are different enough characters that he can keep them separate in his mind, as he switches between set and the stage.
"They feel like two different folders in my mind: there's the King James folder, and all that that means and all of the circumstances that contributed to Matt's life, and then there's the Abbott Elementary file, and Jacob has a completely different trajectory. Maybe if I were performing the play at night and shooting the TV show in the morning things might get confusing, but to me they couldn't feel more different right now. I'm in Matt's world."
Joseph’s writing captures the complexities of male friendships, providing a fertile ground for exploration that continues to captivate Perfetti three engagements in. In the play the characters, much like real-life men, use talking about sports as a proxy for talking about their own experiences.
"The play is always surprising me, just by the sheer fact that it just continues to work," Perfetti states emphatically. "The way that Rajiv writes is unlike any writer I've encountered; he writes with bravery. It doesn't bother him that people might not get what he's talking about. He is really capturing the subtleties and intricacies of human behavior and human speech."
The piece goes deeper than well constructed realism, however. "It's not just that he's captured a conversation that's real to life. Underneath all of that, he's brought up some pretty important topics about humanity. I'm just surprised by how how, in a way, easy the play still feels. It's not usually like that, and I've been very lucky to work with really brilliant writers." In the end, Perfetti's leap of faith is worth the fear. "Every night feels a little like jumping off a cliff, but it's never the same trajectory to the bottom."