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Primary Trust

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - May 25, 2023

Jay O. Sanders and William Jackson Harper
Photo by Joan Marcus
Primary Trust, to begin with, is the name of a bank. Its columned exterior dominates the streetscape of Cranberry, New York–the town of 15,000 is fictitious, but it could be any of a couple of hundred upstate hamlets. Its citizens are unremarkable, and that includes Kenneth (William Jackson Harper), the troubled 38-year-old who will be our protagonist. This being an Eboni Booth play, we know that Primary Trust will have a double meaning, a chronicle of not only small-town banking in an era "before smart phones," as the program has it, but Kenneth's growing confidence in himself. This is a small, gentle, life-affirming drama that many people are going to love. And I almost did, too, but for a couple of quirks in Kenneth's character that keep Primary Trust from entirely adding up.

We're put at ease from the get-go, with Marsha Ginsberg's detailed miniaturized set, which at first looks like Cranberry is going to be populated by very small actors, and Luke Wygodny's mellow onstage guitar playing; soon he repairs to just below the stage apron and soothes us with cello and keyboard. Kenneth, like so many fourth wall-breaking characters these days, just starts talking to us, tentatively. He lacks assurance, and he has no friends. Well, one friend, Bert (Eric Berryman), who rescued Kenneth from awful circumstances when Kenneth was 10, and whom Berryman struggles to invest with some personality. That may be because Bert isn't really there: He was real, but now he's an imaginary best bud, who only says what Kenneth wants to hear.

Kenneth now spends most of his ample and lonely free time at Wally's, a local tiki bar, ordering two mai tais at a time (for him and Bert) and going through an incredible number, and how he can afford all these libations on his meager salary is the first thing Booth fails to explain. He's an all-purpose assistant at a downtown bookstore, working for Sam, who's genial and avuncular, as is Kenneth's subsequent boss, Clay (both are Jay O. Sanders; he's also an unctuous waiter at an upscale French cafe who earns a laugh with a mere walk), who hires him after Sam retires to Arizona and closes shop.

Time has a way of rushing by in Primary Trust. That's mostly because Wygodny keeps ringing a hotel desk clerk bell to cut off a scene and start another one, a cute transitional device at first that becomes wearying. For instance, we encounter Kenneth at Wally's being served by a rapid succession of waiters, all played, delightfully, by April Matthis–ding, ding, ding. The last of them, Corinna, is a treasure, a simpatico listener who helps Kenneth through a rough patch and seems a promising prospect as a real live friend, maybe even a romantic interest. Corinna helps him find his next job, at Primary Trust, where Clay caringly mentors him–what a concept, a new play where all the old white men are good guys–and turns him into a leading light among Primary Trust's bank tellers.

Which is Booth's second questionable move. We've already seen that Kenneth is quite limited, barely able to sustain a conversation unless it's with the fictional Bert, and wary of outsiders. Why would he be a whiz at what Clay calls "cross-selling," peddling additional services to existing customers? Harper plays with beautiful detail, capturing the long-term effects of a devastating childhood memory, and, unlike many actors, he's not afraid to pause, really pause, when Kenneth is in a quandary and puzzling things out. But character inconsistencies keep popping up, and Harper can't do anything to mute them.

They're most glaring when Kenneth, who has mentioned having a temper but hasn't displayed it, does something irrationally angry and destructive, and the anger stems from a dialogue he's having with himself. He has utter control over both voices, yet one of them does something that leaves him upset and hurt. We get it, sort of–Kenneth has been making social progress, has learned to interact with others better (partly through repeated, highly unlikely chance encounters with Corinna), rendering his retreat to unreality less necessary. But this is very strange behavior, and it somewhat tempered my joy in seeing this lost youngish man find himself.

Not that it isn't a warm little play, cannily directed by Knud Adams, glowingly lit by Isabella Byrd, and subtly sound-designed by Mikaal Sulaiman. The pre-cellphone era it portrays, where fewer interpersonal exchanges are cyber and concern for one's fellow man seems to pave the Cranberry streets, sure looks attractive. There are no villains here, and Booth invests her earnest story with a welcome seasoning of humor. Such optimism about the human condition is rare onstage nowadays, and I can't wait to see the next thing William Jackson Harper does. I just wish Booth had written Kenneth a little more consistently, and cut down on the ding-ding-dings.

Primary Trust
Through July 2, 2023
Roundabout Theatre Company
Laura Pels Theatre, Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street
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