Forty-one-year-old playwright Samuel D. Hunter has been acclaimed over the last 11 years for a series of works set in his native Idaho, which have been presented at institutional theaters. His latest, A Case for the Existence of God is two-character piece depicting the intense platonic and eventful relationship between two men in their 30’s.
Ryan, an amiable straight white yogurt plant worker is in the Twin Falls office of Keith, a stressed single gay black mortgage broker. Ryan is trying to buy a 12-acre parcel that was once part of his family’s much larger property. His marriage has broken up and he intends to build a house on it to raise his two-year-old daughter. The two men met during a recent daycare pickup, Ryan is fostering with the intention of adopting, a two-year-old girl whose parents are drug addicts. Their bond grows stronger when Ryan reveals that they went to the same high school.
Mr. Hunter begins his play on an amusing note as the dim Ryan attempts to fathom the barrage of financial facts and figures Keith recites. The drama that develops over months is whether Ryan will be able to buy the land and if Keith will succeed at adopting his foster child. These plot points are fused with the deepening involvement between the two men.
Though there’s two well-delineated characters and a compelling plot, A Case for the Existence of God plays out like a 90-minute cerebral exercise, reaching an unsatisfying pseudo-fantastical conclusion. This is explained by Hunter’s stage directions which explicitly have the actors sitting for a good deal of the time. He has several dictates as to how his dialogue should be delivered, one example is “Dialogue written in italics is emphatic, deliberate; dialogue in ALL CAPS is impulsive, explosive. Dialogue in [brackets] is implied, not spoken.”
No wonder that the experienced cast of Kyle Beltran as Keith and Will Brill as Ryan’s exceptional performances have an odd tone, as does the entire production due to authorial micromanaging. There is Brechtian, now there is Hunterian, where strained artifice abounds.
Hunter has stated that A Case for the Existence of God was inspired by the tribulations of him and his husband when buying a New York City co-op for them and their daughter, as well as seeking to explore a platonic male relationship. The potential theatrical viability of these threads are undermined by heavy-handed technique.
Director David Cromer faithfully fulfills Hunter’s vision, with the mostly static positioning of the strategically mannered actors surrounded by non-realism. Set back on one side of the large stage is scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado’s L-shaped claustrophobic office configuration, floating above it is a separate detached ceiling. The physical distance of the actors and the actions from the audience are apparent even sitting relatively close. Tyler Micoleau’s lighting design and Christopher Darbassie’s sound design both emphasize and achieve a desired artificial dimension. Costumer designer Brenda Abbandandolo’s fine street clothes perfectly realize the characters.
Harold Pinter had his Pinteresque pauses, and David Mamet has his Mamet Speak. In A Case for the Existence of God, Samuel D. Hunter offers his own distinctive form of dramatic writing. Some theatergoers may find it significant and enriching; others could find it synthetic and underwhelming.
A Case for the Existence of God (extended through May 29, 2022)
Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission