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Theatre in Review: A Case for the Existence of God (Signature Theatre Center)

Will Brill, Kyle Beltran. Photo: Emilio Madrid

"Polyphony just means that there are two different melodies being played at the same time that complement each other harmonically." So says Keith, one half of the cast of A Case for the Existence of God, and it's an apt description of playwright Samuel D. Hunter's methodology here. Keith has dual degrees in early music and English, but, like most characters in Hunter's plays, he has ended up back at home in a mid-size Idaho town, stuck in a lousy job -- in his case, as a mortgage broker. He makes the above comment to Ryan, whose life seems permanently consigned to a downward slope. The men have little in common except for single fatherhood and, as Ryan notes, "a specific kind of sadness."

And yet, in a series of encounters stretched over months, Hunter unites his characters in a kind of spoken polyphony, striking notes of loneliness, heartbreak, and endurance. At first glance a conventional conversation piece, A Case for the Existence of God is much more than that; among other things, it is the rare play to explore a non-sexual intimacy between men. And under its low-key surface is an abiding sense of mystery.

Having encountered Keith during a chance encounter at a day care center, Ryan approaches him about obtaining a mortgage for a parcel of land just outside of town. It once belonged to his family; now in the middle of a divorce, he is eager to build a home there for himself and his daughter. Of course, getting a mortgage can be a lengthy and arcane process -- Hunter has fun with the grisly details -- and Ryan's finances aren't exactly rock-solid. Still, Keith goes above and beyond to facilitate a deal and, over time, a wary friendship forms. They make an odd pair: Ryan is a poster boy for contemporary American malaise, being estranged from his mental illness-plagued family, lumbered with a bad credit rating, and living paycheck to paycheck from a job at the local yogurt factory. (His ex-wife is moving on, both emotionally and with a new career.) When asked about any valuable property that might serve as collateral, he says, hopefully, "I wrote a novel." It's a laugh line that hints at a multitude of unfulfilled dreams.

Despite his education and rather more affluent upbringing, Keith doesn't have much more to show for himself. He leads a solitary existence, dating opportunities being thin on the ground for Black gay men in his corner of the world. Raising a little girl in a foster-to-adopt program, he is weeks away from becoming her legal father. But, suddenly, the meth-addicted birth mother is raising objections and the final decision is coming down to the wire.

Across several scenes written in Hunter's signature understated, unsentimental style, Ryan and Keith open up to each other, expressing their sorrows, their yearnings, and, most of all, their love for their daughters. Because Keith's previous attempts at adoption have ended in disappointment, a phone call from the social worker handling his case is enough to induce an anxiety attack. Ryan is haunted by his family's legacy of self-destruction, including a harrowing incident that nearly killed off him and his father. Their friendship is frankly spiked with resentments. Keith, scarred by an adolescence spent as a social outcast, still begrudges Ryan's long-gone high school popularity. Ryan, locked in a custody battle, is jealous of Keith's single-father status.

Their friendship will be acutely tested when Ryan, desperate to get that mortgage, commits a rash act that has ruinous implications for them both, forcing them into a reckoning. Yet Hunter, uniquely among his peers, is interested in the enigmatic workings of grace and in a simple, yet satisfying, coup de théâtre, the action leaps into the future, revealing that, even in loss and failure, the men have been a deeply benign influence on the people they love.

David Cromer, the ideal director for a play as intimate as a whisper yet bursting with feelings, gets beautifully nuanced performances from his stars. Will Brill smartly emphasizes Ryan's impulsive qualities, as well as his lurking fear that his dreams are built on sand. Bitterly noting all the people around him building solid lives, he wonders, "How am I so shitty at everything? And how long do I have before Krista [his daughter] starts realizing that?" Kyle Beltran gives Keith a quiet competence and compassion, qualities that throw into high relief the moments when he erupts in impotent fury. Both actors are expert listeners, and both are experts at subtly signaling major changes in the emotional weather.

Such skills are especially important for a production as oddly situated. It's unclear why this intimate character study was slotted for the Signature's expansive Irene Diamond Stage. Meeting the challenge, Arnulfo Maldonado has come up with a nicely detailed brokerage office set that uses a fraction of the available space; as a result, lighting designer Tyler Micoleau plays a crucial role, tightly focusing the action, signaling shifts in time, and opening up the stage for the play's deeply moving coda. Brenda Abbandandolo's costumes and Christopher Darbassie's sound design are both solid, too, but this production would benefit from a smaller venue, perhaps the Signature's Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre.

Still, at a time when so many new plays are filled with rancor and righteous rage, A Case for the Existence of God is interested in how grace can intervene in the saddest of lives, providing strength and spiritual sustenance. (Hunter is not an overtly religious writer, but the play's title speaks for itself.) It extends his vision of a heartland where prosperity and stability, to say nothing of joy, are running down, but it is countervailed by an abiding belief in goodness, a sense that loved shared is never love wasted. In its simple, unpretentious manner, it is a two-part invention on the riddle of existence. And it is a nearly perfect little thing of beauty. --David Barbour

(3 May 2022)

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