There seems at first a large gap between the cosmic title of this play and the mundane situation it dramatizes: A factory worker named Ryan (Will Brill) is meeting with a mortgage broker named Keith (Kyle Beltran) in hopes of getting a loan to buy twelve acres of land near the small town of Twin Falls, Idaho. For most of the ninety-minute play, they sit talking in Keith’s small, cluttered office, rarely even leaving their chairs.
But this is a play by Samuel D. Hunter, in a production directed by David Cromer. For at least a decade, the subtlety and seeming simplicity in their separate works of theater have produced some of the most sublime moments on a New York stage that I’ve ever experienced. In “A Case for the Existence of God,” they’ve done it again, this time together.
Sublime doesn’t mean religious. The only mention the two characters make of “God” in “A Case for the Existence of God” is in the colloquial expression “Oh my God” (which, come to think of it, the two characters exclaim with some frequency – perhaps an example of the crafty symbolic touches with which Hunter typically riddles his scripts.)
No, what I take the title to mean – what the play is trying to say – is that there is always hope, even when things are at their most terrible and sad. That hope comes from connecting…not with a divinity, necessarily, but with other people, past, present and future.
Things are terrible and sad for both Ryan and Keith, in what turn out to be similar ways. Ryan notices it first: ”I hope this isn’t weird of me to say but I think we share a specific kind of sadness. You and me.”
It does sound weird when he says it. Keith, the son of a lawyer, is a gay, Black financial professional who graduated from college with a degree in English and Early Music. Ryan, the son of a drug addict, stopped at high school, works in a yogurt plant, and has trouble understanding not just Keith’s explanations about how a mortgage would work, but even Keith’s vocabulary. At one point, Ryan asks Keith what “harrowing” means.
But we learn fairly early on that they both are fathers, each with a 15-month-old daughter, which is how they met, at the Sunshine day care center. They both like the place, which is one of only two affordable day care centers in the town.
“I’ve heard bad things about Kuddly Kids,” Keith says to Ryan.
“Yeah, bad. Stay the hell away from Kuddly Kids.”
It’s their first personal conversation, and it reflects the understated humor throughout the play, which becomes increasingly harrowing.
Ryan is going through a divorce, and is fighting his ex-wife for custody of their daughter Krista. Those 12 acres he wants to buy were originally part of a large tract of land owned by his family generations back, but lost when a great-grandfather, mentally ill, burned the place down, with himself in it. Ryan wants to reclaim a small portion of the land, for the sake of his daughter, as proof he’s “hit the reset button,” that he’s changed the fate of his family.
Keith’s 15-month-old, Willa, is somebody he’s fostered since her birth to a drug-addicted mother, after several years of trying unsuccessfully to adopt. Now, we eventually learn, Willa’s biological aunt, appalled that Keith is gay, wants to take her away from him.
As they struggle through their troubles in scenes that take place over days, weeks, maybe months, we see them growing closer. But it’s done carefully: They are not always supportive of one another; sometime they lash out. They’re not always good for one another. All in all, the relationship feels free of manufactured sentiment. And it’s done beautifully: I’ve since read that Brill and Beltran, playing men in their thirties, were roommates at Carnegie Mellon University; Whether that’s the reason, or whether they’re just damn good actors, there’s something tangibly authentic, and inexpressibly moving, about their interaction.
It wouldn’t be wrong to call Cromer’s production minimalist. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set is a cramped little office placed in the middle of a large otherwise empty stage. We suspect two things as soon as we see this set: 1. This is surely a metaphor for the place of ordinary people within the vastness of the universe and 2. Eventually somehow the rest of the space will be used in some theatrical way.
And so it is, in the last five minutes of the play, ending in a startling finale under stark bright lights that justify the title, but not at all in the way that you might think.
For the first 85 minutes, though, “A Case for The Existence of God” is just the two actors in that small boxed-in space in the center of the stage, with one scene following another without pause, and sometimes without even a shift in lighting; we know that they occur days or even weeks apart just from the context. At times Bill and Beltran are in near-total darkness. Tyler Micoleau’s lighting is as moody as the characters.
Some might find this staging claustrophobic or confusing. I found it a tonic. I’m coming to “A Case for the Existence of God” after the crunch at the end of the Broadway season, a season that, for all its effort at presenting a varied palate, featured a standard quota of big, splashy musicals. As one theatergoer, furious at my lukewarm response to one of these shows, put it: After almost two years of being cooped up, we want to be happy and enjoy our life again! We want to be entertained! We want to laugh and feel good inside.
But there’s something miraculous in the way that Samuel D. Hunter, a 41-year-old Juilliard-educated playwright who lives with his husband in New York, has become the Bard of Idaho, each of his plays set in that state where he was born. And each one of the plays that I’ve seen over the last decade —The Whale , Pocatello, Lewiston/Clarkston , Greater Clements , and even a digital theater production of The Few at the height of the pandemic – has made me feel a connection to the people of Idaho, a state I’ve never visited, and a greater understanding of American loss, a state we all seem to be in. Some have left me in tears, but some of those tears were out of great appreciation for Hunter’s gift for empathy and sheer talent as a dramatist. So the miracle of “A Case for the Existence of God,” and the many the plays that preceded it, is that, for all their characters deep sorrows, they’ve made me feel good inside.
A Case For The Existence of God
Signature Theater through May 22,2022
Running Time: 90 minutes
Tickets: $35 through May 15, $45+ May 17–29
Written by Samuel D. Hunter, directed by David Cromer
Scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado, costume design by Brenda Abbandandolo, lighting design by Tyler Micoleau, sound design by Christopher Darbassie, dramaturgy by John Baker, production stage manager Katie Young; Caparelliotis Casting
Cast: Kyle Beltran, Will Brill