By Carol Rocamora . . . 

Meet Bert.

He’s the best friend a fellow could ever have—at least according to Kenneth. He’s warm, funny, supportive, and always there when Kenneth needs him—especially after work at Wally’s in Cranberry, New York, a small town 45 miles east of Rochester. On certain nights Kenneth meets Bert at this cozy local bar to drink two-for-one mai-tais, a ritual they’ve shared for years. Bert is married with two kids, he’s got a life of his own—but he’s always there for Kenneth at their amicable, almost daily gathering. 

There is only one small detail: Bert is imaginary. But not to Kenneth, who created him. Indeed, Bert is Ken’s lifeline. How and why he was born in Kenneth’s imagination is the wondrous discovery of Primary Trust, Eboni Booth’s tender, touching new play that just opened at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater. 

Jay O. Sanders, William Jackson Harper, Eric Berryman

Kenneth, played with quiet charisma by William Jackson Harper, is one of those unassuming types who stays in his own lane and never makes waves. He’s been working at the local book shop for twenty years, owned by the affable Sam (Jay O. Sanders). When Sam decides to sell the shop (for health reasons), Bert (Eric Berryman) is waiting for Kenneth at Wally’s, as usual, to provide support, along with Kenneth’s regular waitress (April Matthis). Eventually, thanks to their encouragement, Kenneth applies for a teller’s position at the local Primary Trust Bank, and is hired by Clay, the cheerful manager (Jay O. Sanders again). Kenneth settles into his new job and quickly achieves status as a model employee with a record number of new accounts. He even ventures out to meet the waitress from Wally’s for a drink at a local Italian restaurant—a momentous break from his ritual. 

The sudden and unexpected success, however, has its consequences, with new friends and feelings that throw Kenneth’s insular world into crisis—as well as his relationship with Bert. 

Luke Wygodny

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.

William Jackson Harper, April Matthis

Ultimately, the play belongs to Kenneth. William Jackson Harper gives a moving and memorable performance of an ordinary young man whose courageous entry into the real world is rather extraordinary, given his past. From the play’s outset, Kenneth speaks to the audience directly, taking us into his confidence—to the point that we become his (collective) friend, too.

Director Knud Adams makes maximal use of Eboni Booth’s unusual stage directions in this ninety-minute gem. A musician (the gifted Luke Wygodny) plays several instruments (including keyboard and cello) between the brief scenes. An additional, unusual feature is the sound of a bell that punctuates character changes as well as moments of emotional magnitude.

Following the footsteps of another recent play about friendship this season (Summer, 1976), Primary Trust explores the terrain of loneliness and the gentle joy of connection between one human being and another. As the title suggests, an imaginary friend can be useful—indeed, crucial—to send you on your way to a new and fuller life. 

Primary Trust. Through July 2 at the Laura Pels Theater in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 West 46th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). Ninety minutes, no intermission. 

Photos: Joan Marcus