Critique: Making a Beautiful “Case of the Existence of God”

About a third of the way through” A case for the existence of God ”, Samuel D. Hunter’s inescapable heartbreaker, one character, Ryan, s...


About a third of the way through”A case for the existence of God”, Samuel D. Hunter’s inescapable heartbreaker, one character, Ryan, says to the other, Keith, “I think we share a specific kind of sadness.”

The insight would seem almost comically unlikely if it came sooner. Ryan (Will Brill) was introduced to us as an inept jerk: undereducated, hopeless with money, scratching at a yogurt factory. Although he claims to have written a short story, he does not know what “heartbreaking” means.

He would seem to have nothing in common with Keith (Kyle Beltran), a stuck-up, buttoned-up professional who uses the word casually. Financially savvy and culturally sophisticated, Keith holds a dual degree in Early Music and English. For fun, he listens to motets.

Whether Ryan is white and straight, and Keith is black and gay, also comes into play. You couldn’t make more perfectly matched opposites if you designed a new type of magnet.

But by the time Ryan blurts out to Keith what he sees as their fundamental bond, Hunter’s meticulous plotting has led us to the same conclusion. We are somehow ready to understand that the unlikely statement is both powerfully true and, perhaps, universal. The question is: what is the purpose of a sadness that you can share but cannot escape?

“A Case for the Existence of God,” which opened Monday at a production of the Signature Theater Exquisitely directed by David Cromer, is another of Hunter’s public explorations of his own private Idaho: a post-boom existential vastness in which emotional and economic collapse are conjoined. The previous pieces take place in Lewiston, Wooded, Pocatello and others have dealt with people who failed to thrive in the barrenness of Costcos, Hobby Lobbys, and sub-Olive Garden restaurants.

And although “A Case” makes the connection between personal and societal calamities more explicit than ever – can it just be an accident if it takes place in Twin Falls? – it’s also perhaps the purest example of Hunter’s approach to playwriting as an experience of empathy.

Ryan is the primary beneficiary of that experience here. With the exception of his human being, there’s nothing huge about him, heroic or gruesome, that would suggest the makings of a typical main character. Indeed, he approached Keith, a mortgage broker, with a tiny dream in his pocket: to buy back 12 acres of land that had belonged to his family. By moving there, he hopes to show the courts considering his divorce from his wife that he is stable enough to share custody of their 15-month-old daughter.

If Ryan is terrified of losing his child, Keith’s version of the same fear comes from a very different source. At the start of the play, he has been trying for more than three years to become a father, first through surrogacy and, if unsuccessful, through foster care leading to adoption. The girl eventually placed with him is around the same age as Ryan — the men they met at their daughters’ daycare — but the threat to Keith is entirely external. A relative of the biological mother has, at the last minute, expressed an interest in raising the child herself.

The two processes depicted in the play – getting a loan, adopting a child – turn out to be similar, at least for men who, for different reasons, are alienated from the systems that control their destinies. Although Ryan thinks “money is the only real permission I have to be alive”, he is so naive about how it works, having never had any, that he suggests sending photos to potential lenders to show that he is a “decent guy”. Keith has also staked his life’s happiness – his very legitimacy – on institutions that find single men, let alone gay men, inherently unworthy.

As an adoptive parent myself, I have to say that the plot of the adoption was absolutely authentic, which is rarely the case in plays. Minus the banking conspiracy; I experienced that too. Only a loan shark would dream of risking a penny on Ryan, as Keith would have known immediately.

But Hunter is too complex a playwright to leave us lounging long in the procedural aspects of the story anyway – or, for that matter, the awkwardly growing bond between the men. It is more interested in the misalignment of their needs and capacities; as is almost inevitable for people damaged in different ways, they can only help each other to a certain extent. When you want Keith to be soft, he goes wild; when you want Ryan to face the facts, he can’t. And the world is neither friend’s friend.

Or is it, finally? Although the “case” of the title is unproven, it is beautifully argued by the startling resolution, which suggests failure may not be the end of the story. This thin thread of optimism depends on the extreme delicacy of Cromer’s production to produce its outsized effect. Most of the play moves in comically inconclusive whirlwinds of pent-up feelings, scenes that follow each other without pause or panel, until, after withdrawing from emotion for so long, she can’t no longer be contained. Even then, Cromer puts the lid back on as soon as possible; When Keith has a panic attack, why should we have catharsis?

The design follows accordingly. The set, by Arnulfo Maldonado, depicts the cramped cubicle Keith occupies in his brokerage; framed like a cell by the vastness of the Pershing Square Signature Center stage, it could single-handedly cause a panic attack. The men never even get up from their chairs until the play suddenly shifts towards the end, at which point the setting also shifts, producing an almost geological shift in atmosphere. Brenda Abbandandolo’s costumes, Tyler Micoleau’s lighting and Christopher Darbassie’s sound are equally subtle and moving.

The same can be said for Brill and Beltran, always fine on their own but never better and more in tune with an acting partner than here. Perhaps it’s only when people are so comfortable together (the actors were roommates at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama) that discomfort can be played out and transcended so authentically. Even negotiating Hunter’s slight writing tics – the way he sometimes turns the gears to delay the next development – ​​they fill every moment with a depth of feeling that makes for a quiet play, in many ways comedic. , the density of the tragedy.

It’s the kind of tragedy, however, that hurts by means of hope, like earth ripped up to take seeds. If Ryan started the piece not knowing what “heartbreaking” means, he learns quickly – just like us.

A case for the existence of God
Through May 15 at Pershing Square Signature Center, Manhattan; signaturetheatre.org. Duration: 1h30.

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