A waiter at Wally’s tells a frequent customer that she and others who work at this bar-restaurant have been taking bets about him from afar. They speculate on what this guy Kenneth, who most evenings consumes too many Mai Tais alone in the corner, does for a living. Or more specifically, whether or not he even has a life.
The waiters’ heartless bet about their most loyal customer is as much a shock to us as it is to the man himself, because the mild-mannered Kenneth is one of the most heartbreaking characters to appear on the New York stage in recent memory.
Eboni Booth’s arresting new play, “Primary Trust,” had its world premiere Thursday at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, and it is not a play about an alcoholic, although the 38-year-old single man named Kenneth (William Jackson Harper) could well be one. If so, it would be the least of his problems. Even before the waiters (the multiple-cast April Matthis) reveal what they think of Kenneth — and that probably goes double for everybody else in the small town of Cranberry, New York — we have been following this man’s deceptively uneventful life with rapt attention for at least an hour.
Our desire to protect Kenneth comes from Booth’s extraordinary gift for creating heartfelt dialogues between Kenneth and his audience, even though he’s the one doing all the talking. Harper facilitates those conversations by giving the impression that everything that pops into his mouth is absolutely spontaneous. Most unaffected is how Harper delivers Kenneth’s frequent attempts at self-censorship. Amid the stuttering, the false starts and the non-sequiturs, Kenneth repeatedly brings himself to the verge of confessing something extraordinary only to stop himself cold, midsentence. At such moments, Kenneth invariably changes the subject, but rather than his extreme reticence provoking resentment, it inspires a need in us to protect. His abrupt periods of silence are a mannerism that could quickly turn coy. With Kenneth, however, the failure to communicate has been a life-saving defense that, taken any further, could destroy him. We meet Kenneth at that precarious crossroads in his troubled life.
Whether Booth gives her Kenneth a happy ending or an unfortunate one won’t be revealed here. What’s clear is that life is a very slippery place that could easily go either way for this man, as it can for anyone. Kenneth’s brutal history simply makes his chances at happiness, much less survival, less likely.
Knud Adams directs, inspiring performances that are loaded with extraordinary detail. He has also wisely chosen a most unusual environment in which to tell Booth’s story. Marsha Ginsberg’s dollhouse set design recreates an intersection of small-town streets that includes everything from a conglomeration of stores and houses to a church and the Primary Trust Bank. We’re told that everybody knows pretty much everybody in Cranberry, but Kenneth is one of those people who gets lost in the side streets no matter how small the town is. Enhancing that isolation is Luke Wygodny’s wistful score that the composer plays onstage with a variety of instruments. The music is as effective at evoking loneliness as Gustavo Santaolalla’s score for “Brokeback Mountain.”
During the course of “Primary Trust,” Kenneth loses his long-held job at a book store. He endures a job interview at the bank. And he goes out on what may or may not be a date with a waiter from Wally’s. It doesn’t sound like much of a plot, but as the story unfolds, it’s obvious that these kinds of small moments are not only memorable, as well as potentially traumatic, but life-changing, even for a man on the verge of middle-age. Each of these events could go south, or take a positive turn. Adams’ direction is as mercurial as Harper’s performance, and together, they keep us guessing as to what happens next.
Most surprising and pleasant, Booth hasn’t loaded her story with a lot of miserable townspeople to function as obstacles for Kenneth to overcome. Matthis, playing a host of waiters and customers at the bank, and Jay O. Sanders, playing a French waiter at a restaurant not named Wally’s and two of Kenneth’s bosses, emerge as amazingly nonjudgmental (with one major exception) in their treatment of the idiosyncratic Kenneth.
It’s revealed very early in “Primary Trust” that Kenneth has an imaginary friend for whom he orders many Mai-Tais, none of which “Bert” drinks. Matthis and Sanders give their many respective characters an abundance of quirks. Eric Berryman, playing Bert, is devoid of them. Bert is perfect. Watching the way Kenneth interacts with a man who isn’t really there is enough to give imaginary friends a good rep. We should all be so lucky to have a friend as supportive as Bert, who knows precisely when to disappear.