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A Case for the Existence of God

Theatre Review by James Wilson - May 2, 2022

Will Brill and Kyle Beltran
Photo by Emilio Madrid
Don't be misled by the title: A Case for the Existence of God, Samuel D. Hunter's gorgeous and heartbreaking new play now running at Signature Theatre, is anything but a theoretical religious treatise or a Bible-thumping jeremiad. It is a deeply human, finely etched portrait of two men faced not with existential questions of their place in the universe, but with quotidian challenges of parenting, financial instability, and loneliness. On the surface, it would seem that God has nothing to do with it. Or, perhaps, everything.

Hunter has crafted a deeply moving bromance of sorts. Keith (Kyle Beltran) and Ryan (Will Brill) are both in their thirties, had attended the same high school in Twin Falls, Idaho, and are fathers of infant daughters. That's where the similarities end, and the men seem to come from two totally different worlds. Keith is Black, gay, upper-middle class, and perennially single. Ryan is white, straight, working class, and divorced. White-collar Keith is a mortgage broker with a dual degree in Early Music and English. Blue-collar Ryan works in a yogurt factory and doesn't know the difference between a mortgage broker and a mortgage lender, let alone between "polyphony" and "harmony." (Thankfully, the play does a good job differentiating the professions and the musical terms.)

Expedience, not fate, brings the men together. The play begins with Keith reviewing the process of securing a mortgage for Ryan, who hopes to purchase property once owned by his family. The meeting is particularly tense because Ryan's credit score is perilously low. Keith vows, however, to do whatever he can to help and agrees to drastically cut his professional fees. As the men discuss daycare and gentrification, conversations turn toward more difficult topics, such as Keith's attempts to negotiate an agonizing adoption process and Ryan's traumatic upbringing. Gradually, their relationship exceeds credit ratings, APRs, and ARMs. Ryan explains, "I think we share a specific kind of sadness."

This is not a play that trades in mawkishness, though. There are underlying apprehensions as well as considerable joys in the friendship. One of the most endearing moments occurs when Keith and Ryan watch their children play together in a park. Their paternal affection and shared delight in watching the two toddlers hug is infectious.

The main action takes place over the course of a year, and scenes shift subtly in time and place. (Pay attention to Tyler Micoleau's marvelous lighting that gently moves the play forward to its poignant conclusion.) The play is set (even when it's not) almost entirely at Keith's tight and, appropriately, corporate-accoutered cubicle. Arnulfo Maldonado's brilliant scenic design places the cramped work place and its low-hanging, precariously suspended, tiled ceiling within a vast expanse of nothingness. This contributes to the sense of aloneness of the characters and manifests their need for human connection.

David Cromer has directed with a light touch, challenging the audience to pay attention to small details and allowing the characters' companionship to develop incrementally. There is a quiet intensity to many of the scenes, and when frustrations hit their boiling point, the outbursts and hurled invective can be devastating–or harrowing, to borrow one of Keith's words.

The production boasts two beautifully calibrated performances. As the self-described pretentious Keith, Beltran affectingly reveals the everyday terrors of living that he conceals underneath his professional and carefully controlled demeanor. Brill's Ryan could easily tip over to stereotypically former-jock, straight-male oafishness, but the actor rejects easy characterizations. They are perfectly matched, and their every strained utterance and awkward gesture are completely believable.

A Case for the Existence of God is Hunter's first in a series of three world premieres for Signature Theatre. He has already created an impressive body of work examining a host of yearning and soul-searching denizens from his native Idaho. He has said that his "most recent plays prior to this were large-scale," and his Signature residency "feels like a great opportunity to hit reset." Wherever Hunter takes us next in his Idaho triptych will surely be worth the trip.

A Case for the Existence of God
Through May 22, 2022
Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
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