The Manhattan Theatre Club Has Prospered Under Her Leadership

By Jeryl Brunner

Since it was founded as an off off Broadway theater showcase in the early 1970s, the Manhattan Theatre Club, (MTC), has been devoted to developing and presenting plays and musicals that ignite hearts and minds.

Lynne Meadow, who is now in her 50th Anniversary as artistic director, along with executive producer Barry Grove, who came on board in 1975, never wavered from their mission to nurture new and established artists and present thought-provoking theater. And despite the fact that there were few women producing theater, Meadow was a pioneer.

While they started scrappy at the Bohemian National Hall on East 73rd Street, on any given night, MTC’s spaces, which included two theaters and one cabaret, was buzzing. The key to their success was the quality of their work. Early on in their history, they produced works from some of the world’s greatest playwrights, including Terrence McNally and Sam Shepard. In 1973, Robert De Niro, pre Godfather and Taxi Driver, appeared in Julie Bovasso’s play Last Serenade. “For me, it feels like home,” Christine Baranski has said of MTC. “It’s a place where I can work and be accepted and experiment and feel safe.”

MTC productions have garnered 28 Tony Awards, 7 Pulitzer Prizes, and 50 Drama Desk Awards. In this past season, their play Cost of Living received five Tony nominations and Summer, 1976 also received a nomination.

Just this month MTC presents another slam dunk of a play, King James. A collaboration between Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Center Theatre Group, Rajiv Joseph’s funny, insightful and deeply moving play revolves around a messy and indelible bond that two people form based on their passion for their idol, LeBron James.

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For Glenn Davis, who stars in King James with Chris Perfetti and has a deep connection with Joseph, the play’s genesis goes back many years. In 2009 and 2010, before it went to Broadway with Robin Williams playing the tiger, Glenn Davis was doing Joseph’s play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo in Los Angeles.

During breaks from rehearsal, Davis and Joseph, who are both avid basketball fans, loved to watch the Lakers play. “He’s from Cleveland. I’m from Chicago. I’m a big Michael Jordan fan. He’s a big LeBron fan,” says Davis who felt an instant kinship with Joseph. “We would talk about how much sports meant to us and which player was potentially going to be the greatest of all time.”

Then when Davis became an artistic director at the Steppenwolf theater in Chicago, he asked Jospeh, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, if Davis could commission him to write a play. Joseph wrote King James.

The play takes place in Cleveland, where basketball legend LeBron James got his start and centers on two men who connect based on their passion for James. “It’s about how his career trajectory infused Cleveland with a sense of hope and what it meant when LeBron left to go to Miami,” says Davis. “And it’s about how that hope dissipated and what that did to the city itself.”

Using basketball as a backdrop King James explores how people connect when they don’t always have the language to do so. “I wanted to write a play about two friends who struggled with talking to one another about the deeper elements of their life, but can do so by talking about LeBron,” says Joseph who believes that young men, especially young American men, have a hard time expressing their deeper emotions to one another.

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“Many of them are able to do that through the language of sports,” he adds. “So through talking about sports, athletes and the history of the games, it acts as a sort of code in which they’re actually expressing deeper feelings about themselves. This leads to really heated arguments oftentimes, but it also leads to expulsions of emotion—hugging, kissing and crying.”

King James was significant for Davis which was borne out of his friendship with Joseph. “He is one of my closest friends in the world,” he says. Also, Davis assembled his dream artists to be on board. He remembered Chris Perfetti’s dazzling performance in The Low Road at the Public Theater. “He’s brilliant and I thought he’d be perfect for this,” he says of Perfetti who also stars as teacher Jacob Hill in the hit ABC series Abbott Elementary. Then Kenny Leon, one of the theater’s most prolific and accomplished directors, came on board to direct.

“The play is actually a meditation on friendship. Basketball is a vehicle to mine what is really happening in the human condition” says Perfetti of the play that tracks the relationship over the course of twelve years. “You see them the day that they meet. And you experience every aspect of a friendship. They wound and betray each other, fall in love with each other and help each other. It’s a gift as an actor.”

Without giving too much away, Sean (Davis) and Matt (Perfetti) are both diehard Cavaliers fans. “We meet these characters at the end of their proverbial rope, on a day when they really need to meet somebody. And they continue to struggle throughout the playm which is so juicy and great to do,” says Perfetti. “We see them both at highs and real lows in their lives.”

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Leon, who has been a passionate 35-year Laker fan and also adores Joseph’s work, sees great parallels between friendship and basketball. “Most of us don’t get to the fourth quarter in our relationships. We go through the first or second quarter,” says Leon. “We get a divorce or we don’t talk to someone because they owe us money or we can’t even remember why.” But as he sees it, King James really explores what happens in that fourth quarter of a friendship. “There’s beauty in the fourth quarter. It’s rewarding,” says Leon. “It has nothing to do with basketball or LeBron, but it has everything to do with basketball and LeBron.”

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