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Abbott Elementary's Chris Perfetti Talks About His New Role in Rajiv Joseph's King James

Perfetti takes the Steppenwolf stage this month with Glenn Davis, under Kenny Leon's direction.

Chris Perfetti is an actor on ABC's Abbott Elementary.
(© ABC)

Over the past decade, Chris Perfetti has become one of New York's sure-fire theatrical weapons, giving memorable performances in such plays as Sons of the Prophet, Six Degrees of Separation, and Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow, Moscow – earning him Theater World and Outer Critics Circle Awards in the process.

Now, while on hiatus from his hit ABC-TV sitcom, Abbott Elementary, Perfetti will share his gifts outside the Big Apple in Rajiv Joseph's two-character drama King James, which plays Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre March 3-April 10, and Los Angeles's Mark Taper Forum June 1-July 3. Kenny Leon directs.

In the show, which spans more than a decade, Perfetti plays Matt, a straight, die-hard basketball fan who loves the Cleveland Cavaliers and its then star player LeBron James, and who strikes up an unlikely, sometimes difficult friendship with Shawn (Glenn Davis), an African American basketball fan who comes from very different circumstances.

Perfetti recently spoke to TheaterMania about what excites him about the play, the challenges of doing his first two-character work, and his role as queer teacher Jacob on Abbott Elementary.

Chris Perfetti (center) and the cast of Abbott Elementary
(© Scott Everett White/ABC)

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Matt seems like a very different character than most of your previous roles. Was that a big factor in choosing to do this play?

The number one factor, though many are jockeying for first place, is that I think the play is fantastic. It's this sleeper play, seemingly full of mundane arguments, but I hope its impact will sneak up on people. But yes, it was a big factor for me that Matt isn't the kind of character I get to play a lot. I knew growing up that sports wasn't going to be my calling; in part, because I did not have those talents and, in part, because I was always being distracted by glitz and glamour of other outlets. Still, sports is a big part of my family. I went to a lot of basketball games as a kid, mostly as a social thing, and I come from two homes where one TV is always tuned to the game of the day.

Did you do some sort of research to become more like Matt?

Yes, I felt like I had to, because I wanted to feel comfortable in his skin. Matt is someone who eats, sleeps, and breathes the Cavaliers, so I went to Cleveland for a week before we started rehearsals, and I went to a Cavs game, which was great. I also took an up-close tour with Rajiv of the kind of neighborhoods Matt went to and lived in during the course of the play. While Cleveland is not that dissimilar to where I grew up in the suburbs of upstate New York, it was so great to walk down these streets that I'd been imaging for two years.

Chris Perfetti rehearses King James with director Kenny Leon.
(© Joel Moorman)

That's right, you were supposed to do this play in 2020. What was the hiatus like?

It was so hard not to be onstage; but it gave me the opportunity to dream about doing this play. And even better, it gave Rajiv time to futz with the play. It's basically the same, except for the last act — and without giving anything away, I think what he changed is so fabulous and really deepened the relationship between the two characters.

Your past stage work has primarily been in ensemble pieces. What is it like being in a two-character play?

This is kicking my ass. The engine is just me and Glenn; there's no new character coming in to inject some energy mid-way through the play. That is really intense, but also really gratifying. I feel in control in a way I haven't before. All of the people I talked to who had done two-handers told me it was the hardest thing they have ever done and now I see why. This play showcases what are probably the best and worst days of these characters' lives, and doing that, sometimes twice a day, can be really exhausting. But I am also having the time of my life!

What do you think the play says about our country's investment in celebrities, whether they're athletes or actors?

I don't know. It asks that question, but it doesn't answer it. I think Rajiv is more interested in answering questions about masculinity, friendship, and having an intimate relationship with a non-significant other. Rajiv has created two very different people who are also the loneliest people in Cleveland Heights and who just happen to end up in the same bar at the same time. They are both outsiders and not getting what they want out of life, and that connection is the reason the play works. But their differences are also the reason there is so much conflict. That's all so exciting to me.

Chris Perfetti, director Kenny Leon, and Glenn Davis rehearse a scene from Rajiv Joseph's King James.
(© Joel Moorman)

Congratulations on the success of Abbott Elementary. You've played gay characters on stage and TV before, but how important do you think it is that Jacob is openly gay?

I think it's super-important because representation is everything. But I love that Jacob's function on the show is not to be the queer opinion. In fact, I think the show has become a hit because all sorts of people are responding to its universality. As for Jacob being gay, I didn't know he would be when I signed on; in fact, there was supposed to be a different character – who no longer exists – that was going to be the queer teacher. But once this was decided, it was an easy conversation between [the show's star, writer, and co-executive producer] Quinta Brunson and I thought it was great idea.

Now that Abbott Elementary is a hit, how do you plan to balance TV and theater?

I hope I can balance both worlds. I am so proud to be part of this TV show. And doing smaller roles in TV and film has always been the way I can "fund" my theater habit. But a life where I can't do a play like the ones that I have for the past 10 years just seems so dark to me.