Review: Samuel D. Hunter's Case for the Existence of God Will Make You Believe
David Cromer directs an uncommonly empathetic play about male friendship and fatherhood.
If the title doesn't scare you, then the one-line plot synopsis might. Samuel D. Hunter's new play at the Pershing Square Signature Center is called A Case for the Existence of God, and it's about a man trying to get a loan in rural Idaho. Cast those aspersions aside, though — this 90-minute two-hander, which David Cromer directs, is one of the most moving new plays of the year.
Ryan (Will Brill) and Keith (Kyle Beltran) are worlds apart. Keith is a gay Black man from a privileged background that allowed his family to travel all over the world. Ryan, straight, white, and the son of drug addicts, has no real connection to his bloodline besides the plot of land his great-grandparents used to own, which he's trying to buy in order to find a place in the world. But Ryan has no money and bad credit, which is why he finds himself inside the small cubicle at the mortgage firm where Keith works as a broker.
The one thing Ryan and Keith have in common is their single fatherhood of 15-month-old daughters. Ryan is newly separated, and his more ambitious ex-wife is trying to get full custody. Keith is trying to adopt the girl he's fostered from the day she was born, though her family has suddenly gotten involved, and Idaho prioritizes reunification. Over the course of several months, the two men bond over their shared loneliness and the struggles and fears that come with being dads.
Though some of the dramatic contrivances are a little too convenient (it turns out the pair went to high school together and the more popular Ryan was a bit of a bully to Keith), A Case for the Existence of God is an atypically nonthreatening portrait of male friendship — these aren't David Mamet or Neil LaBute-esque boors driven by sex and power. It's an equally uncommon portrait of parenthood from the male perspective that doesn't paint the guys as abusive deadbeats. Hunter has written a mature, beautiful, and overwhelmingly empathetic play that genuinely gives us perspectives we rarely get to see on stage as he creates two lonely men who just want to do the best for their children.
He and Cromer have two perfect matches in Brill and Beltran, former college roommates with an easy rapport and a close personal relationship in real life (you can tell). Their performances are filled with grace and heart, their devotion to their fictional daughters devastatingly truthful. Beltran is particularly excellent as a bundle of nerves that you know will explode, you just don't know when (it's probably good that Signature has closed off the front row, let me just say that).
For 75 minutes, the two men are seated, barely moving, in Keith's office, which is ornately detailed and realistically brought to life by scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado, with subtle shifts in Tyler Micoleau's lighting to indicate new scenes. I do think Cromer's production would have benefited from being in Signature's smaller theater and not its largest; a set the size of a postage stamp is dwarfed by a stage that feels cavernous around it. But Cromer's magic is finding intimacy in unusual places, and he does so here, too, with his customary sensitivity. It's a really lovely production, befitting of a really lovely play.
As a new dad myself, I found myself relating to A Case for the Existence of God on a molecular level. It's like Hunter jumped inside my brain and threw all my anxieties on that stage, and the result was a cathartic experience I've not stopped thinking about. The title may be scary, but it's open for interpretation. Looking into my 3-month-old daughter's eyes and seeing the entire world is all the case for the existence of God I need. But this play is pretty good too.