theater review

Looking for Connection in Primary Trust and The Fears

William Jackson Harper in Primary Trust, at the Laura Pels.
William Jackson Harper in Primary Trust, at the Laura Pels. Photo: Joan Marcus

Theater seems to have loneliness on the mind. In recent works like King James and Summer, 1976, I’ve seen intimate explorations of friendship, and in plays like The Trees, a consideration of the dynamics of community—all tinged by a few pandemic years spent with little human interaction. A stage is a good space to conjure togetherness, and so is an audience. That can be a straightforwardly joyful process, if, say, you’re watching a comedy that ends with a wedding celebration, or a more complex one if it all ends in tragedy. Primary Trust is a sweetly melancholy new play by Eboni Booth that falls on the lighter side of the spectrum, and along the way it examines just how the relationship between a character and an audience works—especially since its main character is quite isolated, and his biggest relationship is fictional.

Kenneth, played by The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper, lives in a quiet suburb of Rochester and spends most evenings at a local tiki bar sipping mai tais with his friend Bert, played by Eric Berryman. The catch is that Bert is imaginary. “Not imaginary in the way that you’re thinking. More like—exists only in my head,” Kenneth fails to clarify, in a line that’s typical of the eddying monologues Booth has written for him. Bert, to Kenneth’s mind, has a wife and a family and a whole ordinary life that no one else can see. Imaginary as it is, the dynamic works well enough for Kenneth. He explains to us that he’s an orphan and has spent the past decade and a half settling into a routine built around working at a local bookstore and stopping in with Bert at the tiki bar. When the bookstore’s owner (Jay O. Sanders, king of avuncular grumps) decides to retire to Arizona for his health and close the store, Kenneth suddenly has to confront non-imaginary reality, finding a new job as a bank teller and trying to navigate a fledging actual friendship with a waitress at the bar named Corrina (April Matthis, who also flips through a Rolodex of accents and postures to play all the other waiters and a series of bank customers).

Harper describes all this to us while standing on a set, designed by Marsha Ginsberg, that’s a shrunken-down replica of a northeastern small-town square. You’ll think of Our Town, as you inevitably must when you see the steeple of a meeting house onstage, and director Knud Adams (who previously collaborated with Booth on Paris) heightens the sense of dislocation by having a musician (Luke Wygodny) at the side of the stage ring a bell during pauses in Kenneth’s speeches and between scenes, as if he’s being jarred awake by the demands of other people. The setup tiptoes toward a worrisome level of whimsy, but Adams pulls back from laying it on too thick, and Harper is always there to ground things. He’s familiar as a worrywart (consider his performance as Chidi) and has a shy chin-down eyebrows-up smile that wins you over immediately. As Booth introduces more aspects of Kenneth’s past, his voice takes on an affecting quaver.

Though you do learn more about that past, Primary Trust is not a play where a grand revelation is coming toward you. It’s more about the climb Kenneth faces as he’s slowly becoming reacquainted with the world, turning from an imaginary friendship to real ones. It’s a significant thing to surmount, considering his level of isolation at the start of the play and the distanced nature of suburban life in general—pointedly, Kenneth, Bert, and Corrina are further isolated by all being Black in a predominantly white town—and doing so brings rewards. Booth writes lovingly about the pleasure of small-scale routine familiarity, the kind of thing that undergirds any long-term friend- or acquaintanceship but is nearly impossible to create out of the blue. Corrina complains about her roommate not scooping cat litter often enough. Kenneth’s new boss (also played by Sanders) describes the particular office politics of their own happy hour. Kenneth himself has a great little line about how “there was a daily, quiet happiness that I lost” when his mother died.

You can get all that from interacting with real people in person, but Booth doesn’t discount that there’s a depth to Kenneth and Bert’s dynamic too, even if it’s imaginary. You feel for him whenever he worries about whether Bert will show up to get mai tais again. It’s an interesting proposition to present a play written by someone who’s also a frequent performer—Booth regularly acts, notably as the formidable Zuzu in Dance Nation—built around the idea that a fictional dynamic has its own push and pull, and its own little routine pleasures. It’s a little like the relationship between performers and audiences, too. They’re here to introduce us to these imagined realities, if only also to get us to turn around and reconnect to our own.

The characters of The Fears are all trying to connect and center themselves in their own ways, though they tend more often to interrupt and yell at each other. Emma Sheanshang’s play is set at a Buddhist center in New York City, where members of a trauma support group gather to work through meditation exercises and try to block out the noise from the streets below (credit to Jane Shaw’s sound design, full of the screeches of the city). At the top, a put-together newcomer played by Kerry Bishé arrives with a skeptical eye, setting off the other members of the group, including their de facto leader played by an en-scarved Maddie Corman, and leads to some not-very-zen chaos.

From The Fears, at the Signature Center. Photo: Daniel Rader

Sheanshang’s premise is ripe. There’s much to make fun of in the pretensions of a white woman leading a Buddhist group and in the prickly defensiveness of everyone around her. But where something like Primary Trust uses heightened comedy to work toward its themes, The Fears struggles to locate its center, both in its writing and in Dan Algrant’s direction, which pushes the performers toward breathless jokiness. For a time, it seems as if the play may be arcing towards having Bishé’s character accept the group’s teachings, or toward Corman’s growing confidence in the absence of the group’s original teacher, or in our slow discovery of the depth of the trauma everyone has experienced. All might be valid directions in which to take this, but The Fears tries to reach in every direction at once and never starts moving. I kept waiting, as the scenes passed, for the feeling that each was building upon another, but instead felt as if we kept returning to similar premises. It’s not a bad time, watching some talented actors go after each other, but it’s also not any journey toward enlightenment.

Primary Trust is at the Laura Pels Theatre through July 2.
The Fears is at the Irene Diamond Stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center through July 9.

Looking for Connection in Primary Trust and The Fears