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. Put those slanders aside, though – this 90-minute two-handed game, directed by David Cromer, is one of the most emotional 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 lineage outside of the land owned by his great-grandparents, which he is trying to buy off to make his place in the world. But Ryan has no money and bad credit, which is why he ends up in the little booth at the mortgage company 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 has just separated and his more ambitious ex-wife is trying to get full custody. Keith tries to adopt the girl he’s fostered since the day she was born, despite her family suddenly getting involved and Idaho prioritizing 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.
While some of the dramatic gimmicks are a little too practical (it turns out the couple went to high school together and the more popular Ryan was a bit of a bully for Keith), A case for the existence of God is an atypical and non-threatening portrayal of male friendship – they are not David Mamet or Neil LaBute louts driven by sex and power. It’s an equally rare portrayal of parenting from a male perspective that doesn’t portray guys as abusive deadbeats. Hunter has written a mature, beautiful, and hugely empathetic piece that truly gives us perspectives we rarely see on stage as he creates two lonely men who just want to do the best they can for their children.
He and Cromer have two perfect matches in Brill and Beltran, former college roommates with 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 is devastatingly true. Beltran is particularly excellent as a bundle of nerfs that you know will explode, you just don’t know when (it’s probably good that Signature shut down the front row, let me just say that).
For 75 minutes, the pair sit, barely moving, in Keith’s office, which is richly detailed and realistically animated by set designer Arnulfo Maldonado, with subtle changes in lighting by Tyler Micoleau to indicate new scenes. I think Cromer’s production would have benefited from being in Signature’s smaller theater and not its larger one; a postage stamp-sized ensemble is dwarfed by a cavernous-looking scene around it. But Cromer’s magic is finding intimacy in unusual places, and he does it here too, with his usual sensitivity. It is a very fine production, worthy of a very fine play.
As a new father myself, I found myself tied to A case for the existence of God at the molecular level. It’s as if Hunter jumped into my brain and threw all my anxieties into that scene, and the result was a cathartic experience that I couldn’t stop thinking about. The title may be scary, but it’s open to interpretation. Looking into my three-month-old daughter’s eyes and seeing the whole world is just the case for the existence of God that I need. But this game is very good too.