'Primary Trust' review — tender, grounded play lives on the margins of reality

Read our four-star review of Primary Trust, starring The Good Place's William Jackson Harper, off Broadway with Roundabout Theatre Company through July 2.

Amelia Merrill
Amelia Merrill

William Jackson Harper is too big for the set of Primary Trust. He is almost as tall as the church in Cranberry, the Rochester suburb where the play takes place. His head towers over the top of Wally’s, the tiki bar restaurant where he spends almost all his free time drinking copious mai tais. The door to the Primary Trust Bank, where he works, is fit for a mouse, not a man.

As Kenneth invites us into his mind, scenic designer Marsha Ginsberg invites us into this dollhouse-like, Mister Rogers-inspired world, where time stands still and circles around and sometimes rushes forward out of Kenneth’s control.

Harper is on stage for the entirety of Eboni Booth’s carefully constructed play at Roundabout Theatre Company, a task that may be daunting for a less adept actor. If Harper seems tired by the end, it’s because Kenneth is tired: tired of explaining himself to others, who he assumes can’t understand him; tired of chasing after his lost friend, Bert (Eric Berryman), the only person he knows will accept him; tired of feeling like an outsider in the majority-white place he's lived his whole life that doesn't know what to do with him, a seemingly neurodivergent man whose mother died when has a child. Though the play is a tight 95 minutes, it leaves the impression that we can only leave when Kenneth finds rest.

Buoyed by a broader discussion of who society leaves behind and at the margins, Primary Trust is an intimate character piece handled with tenderness by director Knud Adams. Throughout, a musical accompanist (Luke Wygodny) slams a call bell to trigger jumps in time. Kenneth, anxious and eager to please, seizes these small do-overs, as if in a Suzuki acting exercise, then shrinks as he muddles his thoughts again and again. He can only say what he means when he’s talking to Bert or addressing the audience; the device only feels tired when Kenneth neatly explains the mystery of Bert’s presence in his life.

Dressed a little like the Sesame Street character (in costumes by Qween Jean), the imaginary Bert is one clue that something in this world is off. Kenneth fears others will see him talking to Bert in public, but Corrina (April Matthis), a waitress at Wally’s who befriends him, implies their conversations are not had aloud. “You never talk to anybody,” she says of Kenneth’s time at the restaurant. “I’m the first person you’ve had a full conversation with.” Something in Cranberry is not quite real, even as the performances and relationships among the characters feel grounded.

The most gratifying element of Primary Trust is its ending, which at first hints at the tidy closure of stories, as if the characters are dolls about to be put back in their boxes. Kenneth earns a predictable achievement at work, says he might go finish his college degree, and begins to socialize with his colleagues instead of spending evenings alone.

But life is not picture-perfect like Ginsberg’s model town. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, screaming, scared that I’ve done something wrong,” Kenneth confesses. The turn isn’t macabre but realistic, a reminder that Kenneth’s journey isn’t over. It is only right now.

Primary Trust is at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre through July 2. Get Primary Trust tickets now.

Photo credit: William Jackson Harper and Eric Berryman in Primary Trust. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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