Maybe you've seen him tucked into the corner of a dive bar, muttering to himself now and then, empty glasses multiplying on his table. And perhaps you've thought — though, it's just as likely you haven't — What's up with that guy?
In " Primary Trust ," the playwright Eboni Booth zooms in on one such man: He lives in a fictional suburb of Rochester, N.Y., where mai tais are his drink of choice at an unlikely tiki bar named Wally's. He is alone and adrift in this tender, delicately detailed portrait, though surely he has not always been. Listen, and he'll tell you about the moment he almost drowned and how he learned to keep his head above water.
"Primary Trust," which opened at the Laura Pels Theater in Manhattan on Thursday, finds Kenneth (William Jackson Harper, of "The Good Place") approaching 40 when the bookstore where he's worked for 20 years closes shop. (The owner, played by Jay O. Sanders, needs cash for surgery.) But Kenneth has never found a job on his own; social workers helped him get his current one some years after he was orphaned.
Much of this back story Kenneth relays himself, addressing the audience, in the director Knud Adams's graceful production for Roundabout Theater Company, from what resembles a miniaturized model of a provincial square. (The scaled-down set is by Marsha Ginsberg, and the elegant lighting is by Isabella Byrd.) In 15 years, Kenneth explains, all this will be leveled and replaced by condominiums. The municipal motto — "Welcome Friend, You're Right on Time!" — feels laden with uncertain melancholy: It could be a salutation from the threshold of death.
Mordant subtext and typically empty sentiments are among the ways Booth demonstrates that language can convey deep pain one minute and ring utterly hollow the next, usually in the service of capitalism. In contrast to Kenneth's confessional narration are the rote greetings of a carousel of servers at Wally's (all played by April Matthis, including one who becomes a fast and flirtatious friend) and the sales pitches Kenneth later lobs at customers (also played by Matthis) after he lands a teller position at a local bank. ("Primary Trust" doubles as the name of Kenneth's new employer, and an abbreviated metaphor for what was lost when his mother died.)
As in her superstore dark comedy " Paris ," presented by Atlantic Theater Company in 2020, Booth again probes the half-dread of working-class Black characters in a one-freeway-exit corner of the Northeast. And though Kenneth's Blackness is an underlying aspect of his experience, it is not the acute source of his alienation. His foundational trauma, and his longtime coping mechanisms, are gradually revealed (early on it becomes clear that Bert, his near-constant companion played by Eric Berryman, is imaginary), and he begins to reach through the cracks of his isolation to discover good, decent people.
Harper, who is onstage for nearly all of the production's 95 minutes, performs with astonishing ease and vulnerability, particularly given the depths he is asked to plumb in monologues directly to the audience; he lends the currents flowing through Kenneth's interior life extraordinary subtlety and immediacy. Booth's one-man study is wonderfully vivid, but there's only so much emotional engagement that the unburdening of feelings, rather than their enactment or discovery, can inspire. Her other characters are far more loosely sketched: Sanders and Matthis turn small roles, rich with concise, sideways detail, into four-course meals, paradoxically making them feel underused.
The production's play on perspective and proportion, with people as tall as buildings, enhance the undertones in Booth's work that question who, and what, we pay attention to and why. Do New Yorkers, for example, who Kenneth remarks "step over human beings sleeping in the street," think about places like this, or about why someone might be drinking for two at happy hour and talking to no one?
Throughout the production a bell, like the ones that summon unseen workers from behind service counters, dings repeatedly, sometimes seemingly incessantly, variously marking the reset or passage of time. It feels like a disruption — an unexplained and overused device that interrupts the flow of life. Maybe it's actually a wake up call, and not just for the man who's been living in a daze.
Primary Trust roundabouttheatre.org . Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.
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‘Primary Trust’ Review: Sipping Mai Tais, Until Bitter Reality Knocks have 1100 words, post on www.nytimes.com at May 26, 2023. This is cached page on USA Posts. If you want remove this page, please contact us.