'A Case for the Existence of God' review — a case for a playwright at his peak
"I think we share a specific kind of sadness," Ryan tells Keith in A Case for the Existence of God. He's right. The source of that sorrow is revealed bit-by-bit in this deeply compassionate, quietly remarkable two-hander by Samuel D. Hunter.
The setting, as usual, is Idaho, the author's home state. The 30something men are talking in a cubicle inside a small business in Twin Falls. Keith (Kyle Beltran) is a low-level mortgage broker. Ryan (Will Brill) seeks his help to secure a loan to buy a small tract of land, hoping to make a better life for himself and toddler daughter, Krista.
It's just 12 acres — "great views, really awesome," he says. The view of Ryan's own life is far less awesome. Stuck in a dead-end job at a yogurt plant and going through a divorce and custody battle, he's got lousy credit and no family safety net: "I feel like I woke up one morning and suddenly the world was falling apart under my feet."
Keith, who's articulate, well-educated, and polite, is grappling with his own unsettling issues. He's been fostering 2-year-old Willa since she was born, and he hopes to adopt her. "I tried just going the straight adoption route before I started looking into fostering," he says. "It was — harrowing." He's afraid a glitch will arise just as the adoption appears to be a done deal.
We learn that the men knew each other in passing in high school, where a decade and a half earlier, Ryan was the popular kid and Keith was the outlier. Now, they share common ground, so much so that differences fade and commonalities emerge between Keith, who's Black and gay, and Ryan, who's white and straight. Because of shared hurts and hurdles, their bond deepens.
As in his previous works Pocatello, Greater Clements, and especially The Whale, Hunter has a gift for telling stories of ordinary people at crossroads and in crisis. He has an ear for dialogue that stubbornly rings true. On paper the title smacks of something on a grand scale; on stage the story is small and big at the same time.
Director David Cromer excels at intimate stories about connection, as seen in his vision of the classic Our Town, the family drama Tribes, and the musical The Band's Visit. Under his direction, Beltran (The Flick, Gloria) and Brill (Oklahoma!) deliver lived-in performances that are rich and real — in short, pitch-perfect.
Their work is all the more striking considering that they're basically rooted in two chairs. That's by the author's design. "Unless indicated, neither character ever stands," Hunter notes in a stage direction. That has the makings for a static 90 minutes, but the play is constantly dynamic as it pulls you into its world. The production speaks vividly to the magic that happens in live theatre: Time, place, and even speakers shift when seemingly nothing has changed.
Ace design work adds to the experience. Scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado places Keith's cubicle amid a massive expanse of white seamless that evocatively suggests isolation. Street clothes by costume designer Brenda Abbandandolo lend clues to the characters. Tyler Micoleau's lighting shifts as the action moves from cubicle to residences to a park and, in the end, a place hinting at a ray of hope.
Anyone with a heart will feel it break in the story's tender final stretch. The play is a case for a playwright at the height of his powers.
A Case for the Existence of God is at the Pershing Square Signature Center through May 15. Get A Case for the Existence of God tickets at New York Theatre Guide.
Photo credit: Will Brill and Kyle Beltran in A Case for the Existence of God. (Photo by Emilio Madrid)
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