Review Roundup: PRIMARY TRUST By Eboni Booth Opens Off-Broadway

Primary Trust is running now at the Laura Pels Theater in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre.

By: May. 26, 2023
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Reviews are in for the Roundabout Theatre Company production of Primary Trust by Eboni Booth, directed by Knud Adams!

The cast includes Eric Berryman as “Bert,” Emmy winner William Jackson Harper as “Kenneth,” Obie winner April Matthis as “Wally's Waiter & others,” Jay O. Sanders as “Clay & others,” and Luke Wygodny as “musician.”

Primary Trust is running now at the Laura Pels Theater in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 West 46th Street). This is a limited engagement through Sunday, July 2, 2023.

William Jackson Harper (“The Resort”) returns to the stage as Kenneth, a 36-year-old bookstore worker who spends his evenings sipping mai tais with his best friend Bert at a local tiki bar. When he's suddenly laid off, Kenneth is encouraged by a quirky waiter, played by Obie Award winner April Matthis (Toni Stone), to face a world he's long avoided – with transformative and even comical results. Directed by Knud Adams, Eboni Booth's Primary Trust is a touching and inventive world-premiere play about new beginnings, old friends, and seeing the world for the first time.

An Emmy Award nominee for “The Good Place,” Harper was last seen on stage in 2017 in Zoe Kazan's After the Blast opposite Cristin Milioti. Matthis returns to Roundabout following her Obie Award-winning turn in Toni Stone; she made her Broadway debut in The Piano Lesson in the fall.

The creative team for Primary Trust includes: Marsha Ginsberg (Sets), Qween Jean (Costumes), Isabella Byrd (Lighting), Mikaal Sulaiman (Sound), Luke Wygodny (Original Music), and Nikiya Mathis (Hair & Wig Design).

Naveen Kumar, The New York Times: 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.

Tim Teeman, The Daily Beast: Primary Trust (Laura Pels Theatre, to July 2), as beautifully written by Eboni Booth as it is directed by Knud Adams, is a 95-minute, intermissionless, buffed-to-gleaming jewel, following the life of a handsome, charming man named Kenneth (Emmy-nominated The Good Place star William Jackson Harper), who—capsized early in life by a horrifically traumatic event—struggles, mulls, deflects, and cheerfully and not-so-cheerfully interrogates how to progress with his life in the suburb of Cranberry, New York.

Jonathan Mandell, New York Theater: Adams, who won an Obie for his staging of “English” (which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama),  has a wondrous touch with “Primary Trust” that almost compensates for the flaws in the script. Marsha Ginsberg’s set of a small town is like a charming, if a bit odd, oversized dollhouse. Musician Luke Wygodny offers some lovely underscoring on a variety of instruments – keyboard, guitar, cello. Jay O. Sanders makes the most of his three roles – as the caring, chain-smoking bookstore owner Sam;  as the bank president Clay, a glad-handing type whose life seems to have been forever shaped by his having been a college quarterback, but his kindness is enough to make you cry. Sanders even shines as the snooty waiter in the town’s French restaurant who with great pomp lights the candle on the table, and then elaborately and hilariously flicks out the match with his finger. With William Jackson Harper’s winning smile and easy manner, it should be difficult to buy him as the insecure, isolated Kenneth, but his vulnerability feels believable even as his manner makes him lovable.    

Amelia Merrill, New York Theatre Guide: Harper is on stage for the entirety of Eboni Booth’s carefully constructed play at Roundabout Theatre Company, a task that may be daunting for a less adept actor. If Harper seems tired by the end, it’s because Kenneth is tired: tired of explaining himself to others, who he assumes can’t understand him; tired of chasing after his lost friend, Bert (Eric Berryman), the only person he knows will accept him; tired of feeling like an outsider in the majority-white place he's lived his whole life that doesn't know what to do with him, a seemingly neurodivergent man whose mother died when has a child. Though the play is a tight 95 minutes, it leaves the impression that we can only leave when Kenneth finds rest.

David Cote, Observer: Director Knud Adams (English) continues his run as a pitch-perfect distiller of dramatic essence, working with the dreamiest of dream casts. The restraint in Booth’s script, added to Harper’s immense gift for clarity and stillness and a director keeping the ensemble on the edge of comedy and despair—it works. All accomplished with carefully calibrated lighting (Isabella Byrd), costumes (Qween Jean), sound (Mikaal Sulaiman), and wigs (Nikiya Mathis). Primary Trust restores your faith in theater’s elemental storytelling powers, how it helps us be alone together.

Carol Rocamora, Theater Pizzazz: Playwright Eboni Booth has created Kenneth’s world with loving attention to detail. Supported by Marsha Ginsberg’s charming set, we get to know every corner of Cranberry and its inhabitants. It may be a small play with a small cast, but the actors populate it fully by playing multiple roles. The always-superb Jay O. Sanders doubles as two supportive, empathetic characters—the book shop owner and the bank manager—who offer friendship and support for Kenneth as he emerges from his tiny world. (Sanders also plays a third role—a waiter in the Italian restaurant—with special panache). The delightful April Matthis also plays multiple parts. including two waitresses at Wally’s plus numerous customers at the Bank. And the imaginary Bert (Eric Berryman) is such a warm and likable friend that you wish he were yours. Together, they create a warm cocoon of caring characters who help support Kenneth through his trauma and subsequent transformation.

Robert Hofler, The Wrap: 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.