Cranberry, New York (Remember Andy Griffith’s Mayberry?), a medium sized suburb of Rochester. Time: Before smart phones. The town’s motto: Welcome friend, you’re right on time. Marsha Ginsberg’s charming set is scaled to place rooftops just above actors’ heads. Lit in painterly fashion by Isabella Byrd, we might be anywhere. Luke Wygodny, the production’s composer and one man band, plays gentle folksy guitar as we enter. Intermittent music seamlessly adds atmosphere.
“This is what happened,” Ken tells us. The fourth wall comes and goes. As embodied by William Jackson Harper, the character’s appeal, his genuineness and engendered sympathy never flags. In a remarkably nuanced performance, Harper’s every facial expression and awkward move coupled with impeccable timing hold the center of an otherwise thinly written play. An artist worth watching.
Jay O. Sanders (Sam), William Jackson Harper (Ken)
“This is a story of friendship, love, balance, time…” the protagonist continues. Ken’s mom died in traumatic circumstances (never emotionally addressed) when he was ten. Shuffled through an orphanage and foster homes, he is, at 38, naïve, sweet, tremulous and isolated. For 20 of those years, Ken has worked for Sam (Jay O. Sanders) in the local bookstore, then adjourned to “Happy Hour” at Wally’s, a so-called Tiki House. (Shaped and colored drinking glasses are wonderful.)
There, he and best friend (only friend) Bert (Eric Berryman) down Mai Tais. Bert, he hastens to tell us, is imaginary “which doesn’t make him any less real.” Ken’s friend has an elaborate background, converses like any close intimate and, as the voice of reason, calms him down when necessary. They sit at the back of the bar where no one observes. Sam understood Bert’s intermittent “appearance” during Ken’s tenure.
Playing every waiter and waitress successively serving drinks, April Matthis has unfortunately been directed as stylized in this otherwise touchingly realistic piece. Diverse voices sound robotic and fall flat. Nor do there need to be so very many to indicate the passage of time.
William Jackson Harper (Ken), April Matthis (Corina)
When Sam retires and sells the bookstore, Ken finds himself a kite cut loose and flailing. He spends more time at Wally’s without a clue where to turn until new waitress Corina tells him she overheard local bank people (at The Primary Trust) expressing a need for clerks. (His mother worked at a bank.) With Bert’s help from the sidelines, Ken gets the teller job. We discover this when he changes his sneakers for black shoes. (Deft handling.) Corina becomes a peripheral friend. Things go surprisingly well until Bert disappears. The audience understands why this happens, Ken does not. A meltdown ensues. What happens afterwards is credible in a sympathetic world. Quietly we cheer.
Except for the misused April Matthis, the cast is solid. Eric Berryman’s Bert is understated, paternal and very fine. Jay O. Sanders injects little touches (love the candle) in multiple ordinary roles and inhabits the bank manager with reliable skill. William Jackson Harper is a find.
Jay O. Sanders (Sam), William Jackson Harper (Ken), Eric Berryman (Bert)
Eboni Booth has written a compassionate piece about connection and survival.
Director Knud Adams can’t decide whether he’s offering a fantasy or a slice of life. I vote for the latter as, I think, did the playwright. Had Matthis’s roles been acted with low key believability, the tenor of the piece would be consistent. Oh, and then there’s the damn bell. Like that on an old fashioned hotel desk, it bings regularly resetting time or thought pattern upsetting mood. Two caveats in an otherwise well done production.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Roundabout Theatre Company presents
Primary Trust by Eboni Booth
Directed by Knud Adams
Through July 2, 2023
Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold & Miriam Steinberg Center
111 West 46 Street