Review: In ‘Primary Trust,’ Grief Is the Thing with Tiki Bars

Eboni Booth’s portrait of one man's loneliness and the danger of coping mechanisms will restore your faith in theater’s elemental storytelling powers. And make you cry.

Jay O. Sanders, William Jackson Harper, Eric Berryman (from left) in ‘Primary Trust’ at the Laura Pels Theater. Joan Marcus

Primary Trust | 1hr 35mins. No intermission. | Laura Pels Theater | 111 West 46th Street | 212-719-1300

When William Jackson Harper takes the stage in Eboni Booth’s Primary Trust—entering from the aisle with such unshowy diffidence you mistake him for the stage manager—a little voice inside goes, “Wow.” Partly it’s surprise, partly it’s sheer gratitude to see this superb actor, so contained and detached, able to stir deep feelings with great economy. Harper, as Kenneth, starts to tell his story, sporadic halts marked by the pinging of a bell, and that little voice whispers, “He’s going to make you cry.” Heed the voice. At some point—or many—you will surrender to Kenneth’s tale, which begins sad and descends into unfathomable trauma. By the time Kenneth breaks, you’re already in pieces.

That may be an automatic turn-off—for those who resent emotional manipulation in plays. But that’s a thing theater does best: gathers us and exhibits tragedy or intense misfortune and allows us to share in the emotion. The difference between a maudlin tearjerker and genuine catharsis is writing and execution, obviously. Booth’s fine-grained portrait of loneliness and the danger of coping mechanisms is neither grief porn nor a therapeutic fantasy. In fact, formal psychoanalytic devices are notably absent; in their place there’s alcohol, delusion, and letting go.

As far as the booze goes, it’s strong, sugary and comes in quirky mugs. Kenneth’s nightly hang in the upstate town of Cranberry, NY (pop. 15,000) is Wally’s. He describes it as “an old tiki restaurant with carpeting, and there’s always a man in a Hawaiian shirt playing the keyboard next to the salad bar.” The keyboardist in question is Luke Wygodny, who also dings the bell, while Kenneth is served by a parade of waitstaff of eclectic backgrounds, all played with casual virtuosity by the mighty morphing April Matthis. Kenneth sits at Wally’s for hours drinking too many Mai Tais, but he’s not alone. BFF Bert (Eric Berryman) is there, affable, supportive, sympathetic—the perfect buddy. There’s just one thing, Kenneth tells us: Bert’s imaginary.

William Jackson Harper and April Matthis in ‘Primary Trust’ at the Laura Pels Theater. Joan Marcus

Up top I noted that Harper enters like a stage manager, and in fact he does resemble a famous SM: Thornton Wilder’s. Standing on Marsha Ginsberg’s enchanting set of diminutive buildings—the Primary Trust bank of the title, a church, a worn-out shoe store—Kenneth could be a stand-in for Wilder’s folksy guide through small-town Americana. Like the narrator of Our Town, Kenneth ferries us from humorous daily life into the scary finality of death; unlike him, he has skin in the game. Early, we learn that when Kenneth was ten, his mother died.  

The bulk of Booth’s play lies in unpacking that primal loss, showing how it has circumscribed Kenneth’s personhood and prompted efficient but damaging forms of self-care. Kenneth is not exactly an alcoholic—although he drinks like one. He has no living family or lovers. He works: first at a book store then at a bank. He becomes friends with a warm and sensitive waitress from Wally’s, Corinna (Matthis), but it’s not romantic. Dude’s not even medicating with ESPN. “The—sports ball—game with the—I heard some people talking this morning,” Kenneth tells Bert. “Sounds like the right team won!” (Harper’s intonation scores the laugh.) In short, Kenneth is a ghost of a man: childhood tragedy has rendered him effectively neurodivergent, unable to grow up, observing his utter loneliness from the outside. 

Jay O. Sanders and William Jackson Harper in ‘Primary Trust’ at the Laura Pels Theater. Joan Marcus

Booth gives us a play with no villains, except life. The great Jay O. Sanders plays a couple of employers in Kenneth’s orbit, first a crusty bookstore owner and later an avuncular bank exec comically nostalgic about his football past. Matthis whirls about as bank customers, one of whom is so abrasive (disparaging her deadbeat son) it triggers Kenneth, who has a workplace meltdown. Bert starts to pull away. Kenneth talks about walking around town one cold night in a monologue that still haunts me. Coolly, surgically, Booth strips away her protagonist’s protective layers, not out of cruelty but because he has to change. It’s a credit to the overall production that by the end we sit with hope layered with dread.

Director Knud Adams (English) continues his run as a pitch-perfect distiller of dramatic essence, working with the dreamiest of dream casts. The restraint in Booth’s script, added to Harper’s immense gift for clarity and stillness and a director keeping the ensemble on the edge of comedy and despair—it works. All accomplished with carefully calibrated lighting (Isabella Byrd), costumes (Qween Jean), sound (Mikaal Sulaiman), and wigs (Nikiya Mathis). Primary Trust restores your faith in theater’s elemental storytelling powers, how it helps us be alone together.

As a rule, critics want to be on guard if a play’s pushing our buttons—our social selves, our histories, who we think we are; we must maintain distance. (For others, getting one’s buttons pushed can be a hall pass to righteousness, grist for the deadline.) Booth and her team simply smashed mine. Have you lost someone? Have you numbed yourself? Do you still hope? I suggest you visit Wally’s and keep Kenneth company. 

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Review: In ‘Primary Trust,’ Grief Is the Thing with Tiki Bars