You might think of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” at the outset of “Primary Trust,” when a genial William Jackson Harper as Kenneth describes for us his quaint (fictional) hometown of Cranberry, New York, with its Main Street of church, banks, bowling alley, and his “favorite place on earth” – a tiki restaurant called Wally’s, where he sips mai tais most nights of the week.
Not long into “Primary Trust,” you might switch to thinking of Mary Chase’s “Harvey,” when Kenneth introduces us to his best friend – not an invisible six foot-tall rabbit (as in “Harvey”) but Bert (portrayed by Eric Berryman.) After a few minutes of small talk between Kenneth and Bert at Wally’s, however, Kenneth confides to us that Bert is imaginary. “Exists only in my head. But that doesn’t make him any less real.”
The appealing familiarity of the small town life depicted in “Primary Trust,” the bonhomie of the characters and the quirkiness of Eboni Booth’s script, all are largely enhanced by director Knud Adams’s production and by a couple of superb performances, including Harper’s. But by the end of “Primary Trust,” there was too much that felt off about this intentionally feel-good play for me to feel as good about it as I would have liked.
After setting the scene and the situation, Kenneth catches us up on the story of his life: He was orphaned at the age of 10; when he turned 18, the social workers helped him find a job at a bookstore, where he has worked for the last twenty years. “And that’s where our story begins,” he tells us.
In the scenes that follow, we see his boss at the bookstore Sam (Jay O. Sanders) tell him that he and his wife are moving to Arizona for his health and he has to close up shop. A new waitress at Wally’s, Corrina (April Mathis) tells him about a job opening at the local bank, Primary Trust. The president of the bank, Clay (Sanders again), interviews Kenneth, with Bert coaching him to give good answers, a comic scene but also an endearing one – and just of the many in which we root for Kenneth. At the end of the interview, Clay hires him. In passing, he says: “I have a brother. Got into a car accident in high school, hit his head pretty bad. You remind me of him.”
Later, in recounting the interview with Bert, Kenneth good-naturedly makes light of Clay’s seemingly offhand comment: “…I remind him of his brain-damaged brother, which, that’s fine, as long as it gets me the job.” This gets a laugh, as it’s meant to. But it’s actually our first clue to what this play seems to be about. It’s only much later – shortly before he has a mental health crisis — that we learn the horrible details of Kenneth’s childhood trauma, and how his conjuring of Bert is a result of that trauma.
The unavoidable conclusion is that Kenneth is mentally ill. He’s not just a loner, or eccentric. That the play is constructed and acted in such a way to make us like Kenneth, and root for him, can be read as a message of compassion and hope for the mentally ill. I wanted to read the play that way. But the playwright hasn’t worked out the details with enough care. Too much feels dubious at best. Even small things don’t feel sufficiently thought out. Among the many characters that April Mathis portrays, for example, is a steady stream of waiters, male and female, at Wally’s. Her quick-change is awkwardly staged and unnecessary, but it also made me wonder: Would a restaurant in such a small town have such a rapid turnover of waitstaff? This is an inconsequential example; I offer it in order to avoid spoilers about the far more consequential choices that the playwright makes about the causes of Kenneth’s psychological state, and the trajectory of his mental health in “Primary Trust,” which I don’t trust.
Adams, who won an Obie for his staging of “English” (which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama), has a wondrous touch with “Primary Trust” that almost compensates for the flaws in the script. Marsha Ginsberg’s set of a small town is like a charming, if a bit odd, oversized dollhouse. Musician Luke Wygodny offers some lovely underscoring on a variety of instruments – keyboard, guitar, cello.
Jay O. Sanders makes the most of his three roles – as the caring, chain-smoking bookstore owner Sam; as the bank president Clay, a glad-handing type whose life seems to have been forever shaped by his having been a college quarterback, but his kindness is enough to make you cry. Sanders even shines as the snooty waiter in the town’s French restaurant who with great pomp lights the candle on the table, and then elaborately and hilariously flicks out the match with his finger.
With William Jackson Harper’s winning smile and easy manner, it should be difficult to buy him as the insecure, isolated Kenneth, but his vulnerability feels believable even as his manner makes him lovable.
“So are you good with people?” Clay asks Kenneth at his interview.
Harper has a one-word reply – “yes” – but it’s enough to spark waves of affectionate laughter. We feel we’ve gotten to know him.
Roundabout’s Laura Pels through July 2, 2023
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission
Written by Eboni Booth
Directed by Knud Adams.
Sets by Marsha Ginsberg, costumes by Qween Jean, lighting by Isabella Byrd, sound by Mikaal Sulaiman Cast: Eric Berryman, William Jackson Harper, April Mathis, Jay O. Sanders and Luke Wygodny.