Review: A Lonely Middle-Aged Man Takes a Leap in Primary Trust
American men are lonely. According to a recent survey, one in five unmarried, romantically unattached men report having no close friends. Kenneth is one of them. The protagonist of Eboni Booth’s achingly intimate new play, Primary Trust, has no one in whom to confide — no one who would register on the census, at least.
There is his imaginary friend, Bert (a genuinely appealing Eric Berryman). After he finishes work at the bookstore in Cranberry, New York, Kenneth (William Jackson Harper) meets Bert for happy hour at his favorite restaurant, Wally’s, where they shoot the breeze over mai tais. To everyone else he appears to be drinking alone and talking to himself, but Kenneth knows better.
An orphan and one of the only Black people in this upstate town, he was connected to the bookstore through social services 20 years ago and has never held any other job. At 38 he has opted out of the rat race and settled into his little life of books and tiki cocktails. But when he learns the bookstore is about to close, he is forced to take several risks that push him out of his comfort zone, including applying for a new job at Primary Trust Bank.
Booth’s 2020 play, Paris, featured a central character who quietly observed the louder personalities around her. We get the sense that Kenneth plays a similar role in Cranberry, but Booth makes us privy to his internal life through a series of direct address monologues that reveal a thoughtful, kind, extremely lovable person who has found some level of contentment in his solitude — at least as far as he is willing to admit.
Harper delivers a captivating performance as Kenneth, seizing and holding our attention with his magnetic delivery, which ranks up there with some of the best storytellers and stand-up comedians. One might never guess this is the town introvert, but a low-grade fear (of connection, rejection, and simply being an inconvenience) lingers behind every carefully chosen word and friendly smile. Harper is at his most compelling when Kenneth fights against his natural instincts, when he holds back tears and forces himself to return to neutral. These moments will feel painfully familiar to the men in the audience. In a country with rapidly shifting gender expectations (but in which it is still considered unseemly for men to cry), Kenneth is forced into this emotional disappearing act, which everyone around him seems to prefer.
It has become fashionable to tell men to make space, check their toxic masculinity, and embrace softness. As a response to a deindustrialized, increasingly atomized society, this is about as helpful as “learn to code.” Primary Trust is the story of a sensitive man who goes to work, keeps to himself, and takes up very little space — and no one gives a shit about him.
At least, so it initially seems. Knud Adams, who beautifully balanced the shifting tones in Paris and sensitively unpacked the layers of subtext in Sanaz Toossi’s English, once again proves why he is one of the smartest directors working in the theater. Almost imperceptibly, his production zooms in from the thin sketch of first impression to the nuanced truth undergirding every human interaction, so that we are left stunned by the recognition of feelings we have felt but assumed (or hoped) no one noticed. We go on this emotional journey with Kenneth, rooting for him as he takes control of his life and his world becomes more vibrant and full of wonder.
This is most apparent in the performance of April Matthis, who plays an ever-changing series of servers at Wally’s, as well as every bank customer. Each character is unique and specific (often hilariously so), but Matthis really digs deep for her portrayal of Corrina, a Wally’s server who shows Kenneth a small amount of kindness — just enough to encourage Kenneth to take a leap into the unknown.
Playing double duty as Kenneth’s two bosses (at the bookstore and bank, respectively), Jay O. Sanders similarly gives a performance that appreciates in value as he peels back the layers of padding encasing the high school football star turned bank manager.
Qween Jean has costumed Kenneth in mass-produced casual clothing designed to evade attention. Marsha Ginsberg’s set gives off an Our Town vibe with its playhouse models of different Cranberry landmarks. Seemingly idyllic at first glance, we cannot help but notice the emptiness of the storefronts and the decay of the masonry the more we look. It’s still beautiful in the snow, and under Isabella Byrd’s dreamy early-evening lighting.
The most gorgeous element of the production is undoubtedly Luke Wygodny’s original music, which is the aural equivalent of wrapping yourself in a blanket straight out of the dryer. Wygodny performs live, playing several instruments (keyboard, guitar, cello) to underscore the scenes and transitions (sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman has perfectly engineered the balance so that the music never overpowers the scene). His use of a service bell to denote the short passage of time makes his presence theatrical and integral — a mysterious fifth character musically responding to the stage action.
All that makes Primary Trust the most moving new play I’ve seen this year. Booth joins Samuel D. Hunter as a playwright who has carved out a space onstage for forgotten people in forgotten places, voices that have a lot to say if we would only listen. More than that, Primary Trust is a call to the Kenneths of the world to speak up and take space — because no one is actually going to cede it to them otherwise.