You could have seen the favored web meme, “Males will actually [insert action] as an alternative of going to remedy.” This flippantly ironic roasting of poisonous masculinity (a few of my private favorites embody “invent Fb,” “be taught every part about historical Rome” and “be buried with 8,000 terra-cotta troopers”) stored coming to thoughts as I watched the 2 male characters tensely and generally warmly banter and bond in Samuel D. Hunter’s sneakily profound new play, “A Case for the Existence of God,” now onstage Off Broadway on the Signature Theatre.
Like August Wilson’s Pittsburgh or Kate Chopin’s Louisiana, Hunter’s small-town Idaho isn’t simply finely noticed and sensitively rendered.
Neither remedy nor faith comes up explicitly on this 90-minute one-act play, however in telling the ostensibly easy story of Keith (Kyle Beltran), a mortgage dealer making an attempt to safe a house mortgage for a manufacturing facility employee, Ryan (Will Brill), Hunter paints an incisive, usually achingly humorous image of the best way males use indirection, passive aggression and occasional outright aggression to keep away from naming their true emotions and needs. Exhausting truths ultimately do spill out between these two tightly wound males, who’ve sufficient widespread floor on which to construct a tentative friendship: Each grew up within the small Idaho city they nonetheless dwell in, and each are single dads of lovely 15-month-old women. There the similarities finish: Ryan is straight, white, working-class and going by a divorce, whereas Keith is a homosexual Black man with a elaborate diploma in early classical music who’s fostering to undertake his daughter.
It’s in the end a mixture of Ryan’s lack of social polish and Keith’s poorly hid emotional fragility that begins to interrupt down the partitions between them. The bumps of their relationship, and a little bit of a breakthrough, emerge close to the tip of the play’s first scene. Ryan doesn’t perceive a phrase of the monetary choices Keith lays out and wonders why he can’t simply get a mortgage instantly. Then Keith will get a telephone name about his daughter that cracks his skilled facade, and he unloads a bit on his new acquaintance:
Look, you’re not the primary particular person to appreciate that the monetary system is convoluted. Most of us understand that in faculty. However you both play by the principles and fake all of it means one thing, otherwise you don’t get something. That’s most of what being an grownup is. And also you simply hope that everybody else agrees to maintain taking part in by the principles lengthy sufficient so you have got time to develop outdated and die.
When, after a brief pause, Ryan responds, “I feel I’d prefer to work with you,” it will get fun. However that is clearly the start of one thing real between them even because the soil for additional battle has additionally been seeded. By the point Ryan goes additional out on a limb by venturing that he and Keith appear to “share a particular sort of disappointment,” their bond has turn into virtually brotherly—although, as with most brothers, it nonetheless retains a aggressive, mistrustful edge.
Director David Cromer’s manufacturing, through which the 2 actors sit in chairs in a nondescript cubicle for a lot of the play’s working time, is as sharp and clear because the characters are confused, milking all the strain and launch conceivable from this claustrophobic tête-à-tête. And the 2 actors—Brill, a well-meaning schlub with a everlasting 5 o’clock shadow, and Beltran, a poised tower of gently frayed nerves—are a perfect research in contrasts, as if the play is saying, “If these two can get alongside, there could also be hope for us all.”
Make no mistake: Samuel D. Hunter is hardly parochial in his considerations or slim in his imaginative and prescient.
What concerning the play’s grandiose title? To get a way of what Hunter is as much as, it helps to backtrack to his final play. 2019’s “Larger Clements” was a sprawling three-act tragedy set in and round a derelict Idaho mining museum, which, accordingly, plumbed the depths of the American soul in a story of intergenerational betrayal and disappointment. All of Hunter’s work had led as much as that peak, from the Interest Foyer breakroom of “A Shiny New Boise” to the internecine battles of evangelist missionaries in “The Harvest.” And all of his performs have etched distinctive portraits of characters not usually seen in New York theater, or a lot in any media: small-town of us, most from Idaho, with on a regular basis struggles and needs that each outline and confine them.
However make no mistake: Hunter is hardly parochial in his considerations or slim in his imaginative and prescient. Like August Wilson’s Pittsburgh or Kate Chopin’s Louisiana, Hunter’s small-town Idaho isn’t simply finely noticed and sensitively rendered; it’s also universally resonant. The soulful, roiling interior lives of his characters are not any much less capacious or compelling for having a regional container. If something, it’s the distinction between their quotidian lives and cosmic yearnings that provides Hunter’s work each its comedian thrives and its gut-punch emotional impression.
That’s one motive why, whilst he has decreased the size of his writing from the broad angles of “Larger Clements,” Hunter is not any much less bold or insightful in “A Case for the Existence of God.” It might additionally clarify why a play with that provocation of a title doesn’t take the type of a theological argument. It’s as an alternative a sort of case research, a parsing of two explicit lives and the lives they contact as embodiments of divine function. Or not: There may be additionally a bleak option to learn the title, as if it’s saying that the seemingly aimless story of two flawed, thwarted males is one of the best case there’s for God—in different phrases, no case in any respect.
However whereas it’s true that Hunter admirably avoids straightforward consolation or tidy moralizing, there isn’t any mistaking the underlying religious thrust of his work. Consider his play, if you’ll, as a parable. Who else do we all know who taught in parables?