Off-Broadway Review: A CASE FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD (Signature Theatre)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on May 24, 2022

in Theater-New York

DOES GOD MAKE A CASE?

I liked Samuel D. Hunter‘s A Case for the Existence of God. I didn’t love it, just liked it. Admittedly, I’m in the minority opinion on this one, as many people unabashedly love this well-executed production, currently performing at Signature Theater. Of course, what I like or love is immaterial to anyone but myself. And there is a lot to love in this two-person exploration of fatherhood, desperation, family, adoption, friendship, divorce and, I suppose, Idaho. Or Idaho as a stand-in for a certain mind-set that likes things status quo with little digression from the norm.

Hunter’s clever, personal and compelling writing does a fine job weaving these disparate topics into a believable relationship between two, very unlikely friends. Yet, for reasons unclear to me, I just liked the play. And that is my opinion. Or my belief, depending on whom you speak with. For belief itself is the underlying topic of this emotionally and intellectually engaging play. Not a belief in a Who but belief in a progression — that no matter how chaotic the moment, situations always work out for the best. Since belief in that eventual outcome is what’s at stake, the play doesn’t actually name the Good Orderly Direction that causes that outcome. The question is: Can one still believe in a positive result when “for the best” seems an impossibility?

The play opens on a lone, office cubicle sitting center-stage, surrounded by a large expanse of white. Arnulfo Maldonado’s intriguing set design immediately implies the vastness of the universe in which we exist and how small, and even mundane, our lives are in comparison. Small though our Earth may be, our planet contains a lot of life as does this solitary workspace. For inside Ryan (a charming yet troubled Will Brill) and Keith (a guarded yet welcoming Kyle Beltran) do business, face challenges and live. After a chance meeting at the daycare center where both of their daughters are enrolled, Ryan approaches Keith, a mortgage broker, to help him secure a loan for a family property that he would now like to purchase.

Ryan, who has a low-paying factory job and shoddy work history, needs to up his credentials as a good father in order to help retain custody of his daughter following an in-process divorce. Though a child from a very dysfunctional, working-class family himself, Ryan is already a good father in terms of the love and interest he shows his young child. Keith, a single gay man currently fostering a young daughter that he hopes to adopt is, in many ways, Ryan’s opposite. Though from the same Idaho town, Keith hails from a stable, upper-middle class upbringing with a lawyer father. Keith also has as an advanced degree in music and is the epitome of an upstanding, adult life. They initially meet to review the loan process, with Ryan’s prospects not looking too promising. Yet as the men get to know each other, they develop a kinship born from recognized pain — secrets are revealed, drunken nights had, arrogance called out, defenses lowered, betrayals suffered and play dates photographed. By the time the show ends, these surprising comrades have reached an outcome. Is it the best outcome? Well, that depends on your belief.

Hunter’s script is often funny and well-plotted in how he brings the lives of these two very different men together. There is no melodramatic hysteria or contrived story twist, just a series of life events, which the simplicity and directness of Hunter’s writing demonstrates is dramatic enough. Time is compressed because it is a play, yet time also just happens. One moment we’re in the office, the next at Keith’s house, etc. There’s no explanation or set-up just a sudden realization that time has passed — akin to the experience of one day looking at your teenage child or noticing the year is half over and thinking, “Where did the time go?”

Since there is only one set and the majority of the play physically takes place in an office cubicle regardless of where the play’s action is actually located, this convention for the passage of time or change in place is sometimes confusing. The director’s choice not to clearly delineate these changes, other than perhaps a subtle shift in Tyler Micoleau’s appropriately here-but-not-here lighting or the actors’ body position, momentarily takes one out of the play. For most, it’s probably a challenge for only a few transitions and perhaps that is Hunter’s point. Aren’t there moments in life when a person has to take a step back and figure out what’s going on?

Kyle Beltran and Will Brill shine as the two men at the center of this story. Brill’s fluid, open physicality proves beautiful counterpoint to Beltran’s very tight, very held body that seems to need that rolling office chair otherwise he may never move at all. Yet, in reality, Brill’s life is actually much more constricted than Beltran’s. These are two gifted actors who make original and compelling choices like these throughout their performances. Beltran seems to still be finding the internal reasons for Keith’s rigid physicality but I imagine he’ll connect very soon. At least that’s my belief.

David Cromer’s direction fully embraces the intelligence and unique point-of-view of the writing. There is a pervasive feeling of confinement he creates that goes beyond the physical setting and into the actors bodies and, by extension, offers implied commentary on the various constrictions in all our lives. Perhaps Cromer could have given just a few more signposts to grab onto for audience clarity but Hunter’s writing does have an amorphous quality to it. In this Case, Hunter presents neither a strong pro or con argument for God’s existence. Truthfully, he’s doesn’t really debate the point at all. We are invited to watch a couple of lives unfold then Hunter leaves it up to the audience to decide what, if anything, is responsible for their outcomes. Is he saying that a situation just is and belief/proof is what we assign to it? Maybe Hunter does argue God’s existence after all.

A Case For the Existence of God is a funny, intelligent, sensitive play about life, love and belief.  It’s the kind of philosophical piece that is usually right up my alley. However, I only liked it. Check it out for yourself and, if you love it, let me know. Perhaps you’ll change my opinion. After all, it’s only a belief.

photos of Will Brill and Kyle Beltran by Emilio Madrid

A Case for the Existence of God
Signature Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Irene Diamond Stage, 480 West 42nd St.
ends on May 15, 2022 EXTENDED to June 5, 2022
for tickets, call (212) 244-7529 or visit Signature

{ 2 comments }

Jordan May 24, 2022 at 5:43 pm

I saw this show in previews, and the FIRST thing I thought afterwards is what a bitch it would be to review it. On one hand, you have a thoroughly engaging script, and two well-drawn opposites in a series of fascinating scenes. I even thought, I wanna see this play again. Yet I haven’t. And it’s for some reasons you mentioned. Cromer is a great director, but I don’t imagine his concern was for the audience: Since the men don’t move from the cubicle, it gets draggy, confusing and tough to concentrate on. The ending is also a bit of a stretch. In short, I think the play deserves The NY Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best Play, which I loved. But I only liked the production.

Tony Frankel May 24, 2022 at 7:01 pm

I also saw a preview (one of the last). I reiterate what Jordan said. The affair was. claustrophobic and has a very slow build. I wish I had been better prepared with a few cups of coffee and a line of whatever, because it took quite a bit of patience to quietly listen to the dialogue. Loved the play, it’s so smart, but I sure wish they opened it up more. I didn’t get any kind of emotional punch, either.

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