Surviving the childhood trauma of losing his mother at the age of ten and growing up in an orphanage hasn’t been easy for Kenneth, but he’s had his BFF Bert to get him through, sharing their thoughts, lending support, and spending happy hours together every evening after work sipping mai tais in the corner of Wally’s tiki bar in Cranberry, NY (an upstate suburb of Rochester), in a time before smart phones. But when the small local bookstore he’s worked at for 20 years closes, the 38-year-old loner is forced to change his longtime routine, find another job, and open himself up to a world of new friends, different experiences, and a fresh beginning in Eboni Booth’s Primary Trust – a funny, poignant, and heartwarming play, beautifully directed by Knud Adams and performed by an affecting cast of four, making its world premiere Off-Broadway with Roundabout Theatre Company.
Directly addressing the audience, Ken, seeming slightly timid, a little awkward, and completely irresistible, begins his personal story by telling us, in a soft engaging voice, “This is what happened.” His recollections and revelations – and there’s a big one that comes almost immediately – shift between his first-person narration and re-enactments of the episodes that defined his life and signaled his transformation. Those include his interactions with Bert, the waitstaff at Wally’s, his old and new bosses, and the customers at Primary Trust, the titular bank at which he was hired, with a name that symbolizes his growing courage and confidence in himself and the reliability and thoughtfulness of the people he’s now meeting and befriending.
As the lonely, hurt, and uncertain Kenneth, Emmy winner William Jackson Harper delivers a fully empathetic and endearing performance that is at once complex and understated, comical and heart-wrenching, as he draws us into his world and his mind, and has us wholeheartedly rooting for his success, self-assurance, and happiness (eliciting audible cheers and “awwws” and visible tear-wiping from the audience at the performance I attended). Eric Berryman brings the simpatico Bert to life with his much-needed companionship, advice, encouragement, and calming influence on Ken, having him count to ten when he’s in emotional distress; they make for the best besties anyone could imagine.
Providing additional encouragement and male nurturing for Ken are his bosses at the bookshop (who is less communicative) and the bank (who is more outgoing and boisterous), played with laugh-out-loud humor and underlying heart by Jay O. Sanders. Also appearing in multiple roles is the equally terrific April Matthis, amusingly distinguishing her voice and demeanor as a rapid-fire series of Wally’s waiters, most significantly Ken’s favorite Corinna, who gives him the tip that the bank is hiring, joins him for drinks and introduces him to martinis, and provides some quirky fun and serious compassion as he begins to open up to her about his painful background. He learns from both that he is not alone, he is seen, his situation is relatable, and he belongs.
The across-the-board excellent cast is joined by musician Luke Wygodny, who enhances the moods with his original score and signals shifts in time and thoughts with the ringing of a call bell, as do Isabella Byrd’s lighting and Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound. Marsha Ginsberg’s set captures the look of a small town and its landmark buildings, with rolling tables, chairs, and a bank teller station that move in for the changing scenes and suggest the interior locales. Hair and wigs by Nikiya Mathis and costumes by Qween Jean define the distinctive characters and their positions, with a telling change of shoes by Ken.
Roundabout’s outstanding production of Primary Trust is an uplifting reminder of the impact little acts of kindness can have on others and the change that can come when we open ourselves up to trusting and sharing. I cannot recommend this touching and humorous show highly enough, and if you’d like to get into the spirit of meeting friends and enjoying drinks and conversation with fellow theatergoers, Roundabout is offering happy hour discounts at its remodeled downstairs Tiki Lounge on Tuesday-Thursday evenings, beginning an hour before curtain time of this must-see work.
Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes, without intermission.
Primary Trust plays through Sunday, July 2, 2023, at Roundabout Theatre Company, performing at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $56-148, plus fees), go online. Masks are no longer required but are recommended.