By: Samuel L. Leiter
May 25, 2023: Primary Trust, a touching and amusing new dramedy by Eboni Booth (Paris) at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, is about a man in his late 30s who has an imaginary friend. If you Google “imaginary friend” you’ll have to refine your search for information that doesn’t apply mainly to children. For them—most of the time—imaginary friends are considered normal and nothing about which to be overly concerned. However, it’s rare for adults to have imaginary friends they actually see and with whom they have regular conversations; it’s a subject still not significantly researched. One online site offers this:
There seems to be no indication that an imaginary friend continuing into adulthood means anything different than one in childhood. It may just be a sign of coping or of a strong imagination, though experts are unsure. On the other hand, if an adult hears voices, sees things that aren’t there, or experiences other signs of hallucinations or psychosis, an underlying mental health condition, such as schizophrenia, may be at play.
Thus a play about a grown man who would struggle to survive were he not to have the support of his imaginary friend is clearly about mental illness, even if the writing—as here—presents it in a benign, even comedic, way. One of the most popular mid-20th-century American plays, Mary Chase’s still-revived Harvey, is about much the same thing: a lovable (albeit alcoholic) fellow named Elwood, who insists on the reality of his bff, a six-foot, three-and-one-half inch pooka. Although handled with farcical complications, Elwood’s situation involves his sister’s attempt to have him committed to an institution. No such attempts occur in Primary Trust.
Like Elwood, Kenneth (William Jackson Harper, TV’s “The Good Place”), the appealing, African American hero of Primary Trust, also likes to drink, his cocktail of choice being mai tais. He and his imaginary friend, Bert (Eric Berryman, Toni Stone), also Black, share them daily during happy hour at a local tiki bar called Wally’s. By local, I mean the apparently fictional small town (i.e., can’t find it on the internet) of Cranberry, a suburb of Rochester, New York, whose features Kenneth describes in terms much like those used by the Stage Manager in Our Town. “We have our own post office, a church, two banks, and a wine shop just opened across from the train station. Down past Main Street, just along the river’s edge, is a supermarket, a bowling alley, and my favorite place on earth—Wally’s.”
In Marsha Ginsburg’s charming set, lit with delicate sensitivity by Isabella Bird, some of these features are depicted in less-than-full-sized but more than miniature three dimensions; too small for more than decorative use, they serve as background for all interior scenes. For those, simple furnishings are all that’s needed: a table loaded with books for a bookstore; a windowed counter for a bank; a table and two chairs for restaurants. Qween Jean supplies the smartly quotidian costumes.
Kenneth both narrates his story and acts in it, first by telling of his job for 20 years at a bookstore owned by Sam (Jay O. Sanders, Rhinebeck Panorama), whose poor health forces him to sell and move to Arizona. We learn of Kenneth’s happy hour get-togethers with Bert, his friend and advisor in all things personal; of his budding friendship with Corrina (April Matthis, Toni Stone), one of the many waiters he meets, seriatim, at Wally’s, where there seems to be a perpetual turnover; of why romance with Corrina will be off the table; of Kenneth’s depression when he falls into joblessness; of his unexpected turnaround when he lands a new job as a teller at the Primary Trust Bank, where he’s hired by one-time high school football star, Clay (Sanders, again); of his banking success; of his eventual meltdown; and of the positive resolution of his dilemma.
Despite a passing hint at racial problems, Primary Trust lets such dogs lie and focuses instead on how Kenneth navigates his relationship with the townspeople and, especially, Bert, of whose make-believe status he’s fully aware, while managing to keep it a secret. His byplay with Bert, whose recurrent presence makes even us believe in him (unlike the invisible pooka in Harvey), is sympathetically, as well as wittily handled. The dialogue, in fact, lands a solid number of laughs. When Kenneth is stressed, he instantly begins counting backwards, a calming ritual presumably introduced by Bert, whose real-life source—the result of a horrible childhood trauma— we eventually discover in a devastating speech offering the play’s big reveal.
What comes across most strongly in this pleasant work is the easy humanity of its participants; kindness and concern for one’s fellow man is pervasive. And friendship, even with a phantom, can be immensely valuable. Booth employs some obvious playwriting tricks, as when she sets up a situation you think will turn out one way only for it to be the opposite. Regardless, the warmth of her treatment, sentimental as it may be, overrides the contrivances to create a positive outcome.
Primary Trust, which runs 95 minutes,can’t be taken as a case study of schizophrenia; too much of it is clearly theatrical smoke and mirrors, both in its perhaps too sweet-natured characters and dramaturgic self-awareness. Knud Adams’s (English)inventive staging moves the play along cleverly, if not swiftly; long pauses tend to have a braking effect. The overall tone assisted by a brass countertop bell whose periodic dinging adds a piquant touch even if you can’t quite pin down its purpose. Meanwhile, Luke Wygodny offers effective musical accompaniment with his own compositions on piano, guitar, and cello.
I appreciated the low-key, but still vibrant naturalism of the acting, a refreshing change from so much of the rhetorical style so prevalent now on Broadway, and even Off Broadway. William Jackson Harper, who reminds me of a more constrained Chris Rock, provides a sensational, award-quality performance as Kenneth, overflowing with boyish charm yet always aware of the need to protect his fragile shell from cracking. Eric Berryman makes Bert an always wise, appealing presence, even as he also forces you to work harder at suppressing your disbelief. Jay O. Sanders, one of New York’s leading character actors, makes each of his several supporting roles a polished gem; even a momentary bit as a waiter in a French restaurant is carried off with finesse. And April Matthis, also playing multiple small roles, shines brightly as well.
When it comes to plays about imaginary friends, Harvey need not feel its stature being threatened by Primary Trust. But audiences seeking a new take on the subject can trust that Eboni Booth’s play will prove a satisfactory runner-up.
Primary Trust ****
Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre/Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 W. 46th Street, NYC
Through July 2, 2023
Photography: Joan Marcus