By Stanford Friedman
There is no mention of religion, nor sign of a supreme being, in Samuel D. Hunter’s wrenching, A Case for the Existence of God. Still, this meditative drama is holy in its own way. There is confession, compassion, a search for greater understanding, an ending that is more a resurrection and there is the emergence of faith in the face of great loss.
With deeply empathetic working class plays like The Whale, Lewiston/Clarkston, and A Bright New Boise, Hunter is not only our greatest Idahoan playwright but, at age 41, one of his generation’s most prolific and thoughtful chroniclers of the human condition. His latest work, premiering at Signature Theatre, again brings the audience back to the Gem State and if the character count is smaller than in the past, the sting is no less powerful.
Keith (Kyle Beltran) and Ryan (Will Brill) are two men who grew up along very different paths only to end up at the exact same spot: a cubicle in a small office in the town of Twin Falls. Keith, a mortgage broker, is a gay, black man who has led a relatively privileged albeit lonely life. Ryan, a white, soon to be divorced worker at a yogurt plant, grew up poor and went to the same high school as Keith, though he has no memory of them interacting back in the day. Instead, the two have become acquaintances via the daycare center where they take their toddler daughters.
Keith is seeking a loan from Ryan so that he can build a home on a parcel of land once owned by his family. Ryan has to break it to Keith that he is a broker, not a mortgage lender, and that the financial process is much more complicated than what he was imagining. Out of the ensuing confusion comes an unlikely friendship that sees them through a very tough few months of things falling apart for them both. “Things happen every day that aren’t right,” bemoans Keith. “We have to believe that it won’t happen. We have to believe that, like, things still make sense,” offers Ryan with a palpable sense of despair.
Hunter’s use of foreshadowing can at times be heavy. Keith, it turns out, is in the process of adopting his daughter. The fact that the child’s biological aunt is still in the picture is like setting a timer and daring it not to go off. Ryan’s father and grandfather both showed signs of mental illness, which is perhaps a too convenient shortcut to his own downfall. Still, Beltran and Brill give moving, sympathetic performances that make it easy to fill in the time gaps that Hunter intentionally creates to keep us on our toes.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s clever scenic design creates a visual tension before the play even begins, with its impossibly small cube of a workspace surrounded on all sides by a vast, open expanse. The excellent David Cromer directs, knowing that less is more and keeping his two actors in close proximity to each other throughout the night. When the scene shifts out of the office into what should be the larger living rooms of the two characters, and then to a playground where their daughters interact, the actors and the set stay put, stuck in their psychological tight place, with transitions of space and time suggested only though a change in lighting or a slight repositioning of a chair.
The play ends with a surprise, a challenge for the actors and creative team alike, and it brings chills. It is not so much a conclusion as it is a leap, a wish…a prayer.
A Case for the Existence of God – By Samuel D. Hunter, directed by David Cromer
WITH: Kyle Beltran (Keith) and Will Brill (Ryan)
Arnulfo Maldonado (Scenic Design), Brenda Abbandandolo (Costume Design), Tyler Micoleau (Lighting Design), Christopher Darbassie (Sound Design). The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W 42nd St., (212) 244-7529, https://www.signaturetheatre.org. Through May 15. Running time: 90 minutes.