A Case for the Existence of God | 1 hour 30 minutes | Pershing Square Signature Theatre, 480 W 42nd St. | 212-244-7529
As I sat watching two men sit for an extended period in A Case for the Existence of God, I reflected on my own sedentary life. I spend so many hours a day slumped at a desk or on a couch, doing, what, exactly? Working, consuming media, waiting for the sweet deliverance of death? That got dark. So does Samuel D. Hunter’s delicate but ambitious two-hander, which tracks the intertwining of stranger souls over 90 minutes. After a while, the men’s seated position begins to take on an existential pall—passivity, stasis, despair. When one of them finally stands, in anger, it’s like a thunderbolt rips through the theater.
Ryan (Will Brill) and Keith (Kyle Beltran) are crammed, prisoner-like, in Keith’s cubicle at a mortgage-broker company in Twin Falls, Idaho. The chintzy partition and desk arrangement will phase into other locales without so much as a shifted fern or stapler on Arnulfo Maldonado’s corporate-island-in-a-desert set; Tyler Micoleau’s masterful lights get a workout in establishing space and time. Ryan met Keith as both were picking up their toddlers at daycare. Hearing that Keith is a mortgage broker, Ryan booked a meeting. It takes Keith a little time to explain the difference between a lender and a broker: Keith serves as a middleman between Ryan and the bank (like a priest to a penitent). Ryan has his eye on twelve acres that his great-grandfather owned nearly a century ago, a site where the mentally disturbed ancestor burned down the house. One wonders why Ryan would want to reclaim such haunted land, but the recently divorced dad with shaky finances is grasping for roots, a place to call home.
Keith is also trying to plant a stake in the future: He’s the doting but fretful foster parent of one Willa, daughter of a meth addict, and has pinned his happiness on full adoption. But laws in Idaho allow relatives of the child to file for custody, so Keith lives in terror that his beloved baby girl will be taken from him. Keith is Black and gay as well, facts which create a little friction between him and Ryan, nothing serious. If anything, the better educated Keith (he double-majored in Early Music and English) creates minor road bumps using words like “harrowing” and “tacitly,” to Ryan’s momentary confusion.
As any talented playwright would, Hunter parcels out character data with strategic care. He drops a surprise on us a third of the way through, as we learn the guys have a history leading back to high school. With the patience of a novelist, Hunter acquaints us with their individual pasts and nudges them slowly into each other’s lives. Ryan’s resentment of Keith’s privileged background is tempered by a dawning appreciation how, as a gay foster dad, he has no rights. Keith sees the generational poverty and history of mental illness stacked against Ryan. The pressure on both is so great, a simple gesture of kindness, an offered hug, is all it takes for rage to explode. (For a hot second you may, like me, squint at the bare-bones narrative for allegory: Ryan is Old Testament, Keith is New? It’s a dead end.)
As he showed earlier this season with quite a different work, the sprawling, multi-pronged family epic A Prayer for the French Republic, director David Cromer is the master of focus and paring scenes down to their essential pith and conflict. He controls the pain and numbness levels of a text—and thus our sympathetic responses—with the practiced hand of an anesthesiologist. This beautifully designed production—including Brenda Abbandandolo’s subtly distinguished levels of contemporary casual, and Christopher Darbassie’s evocative sound effects—confronts us with a world at once naturalistic and epic in spiritual scale. By the end of the piece, Cromer and his designers have abandoned the cubicle and repurposed it as a natural formation upon which to climb, to gain a wider view of the world.
I will admit, the day after I saw A Case for the Existence of God, the grandiose title still rankled. It seemed like a big hat for a small cowboy. If you don’t believe in a supreme being, the title is even more dissonant. Still, if Hunter replaced “God” with “love” I wouldn’t have a problem with it, and love is, ultimately, also abstract. Let’s just agree that if two broken individuals can conquer fear to comfort each other, maybe something sacred walks the land.