A Case for the Existence of God

RSAT Darcy Kent and Kevin Hofbauer in A Case for the Existence of God photo by Jodie HutchinsonJust days after its Australian premiere at Sydney’s Seymour Centre, A Case for the Existence of God has made its Melbourne debut. The timing seems uncanny, but this latest work by American playwright Samuel D Hunter won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play in 2022, and the film adaptation of his 2012 play, The Whale, was a 2023 Academy Awards winner.

No doubt Australian theatre people were paying attention, so audiences in two cities can now experience this heart-breaking yet hopeful drama, including Gary Abrahams’ sensitive production for Melbourne’s Red Stitch.

A Case for the Existence of God is, like most of Hunter’s plays, set in his home state of Idaho. We meet two seemingly very different men sitting either side of a desk in a small-town mortgage brokers’ office. White, straight, blue-collar worker Ryan wants to buy some land that had been in his family for generations, but is bamboozled by money matters. Black, gay broker Keith becomes frustrated trying to guide Ryan, whose financial situation isn’t good.

Nevertheless they bond because, as we soon learn, both men have very young daughters they fear will be taken from them and, as Ryan points out, they share “a specific kind of sadness.” Over time the pair become friends and, somewhat awkwardly, lean on each other for emotional support.

Despite the title, religion isn’t addressed in this two-hander. Instead, Hunter invites the audience to share Ryan’s hope that all will be well. That there is good in the world, even though these men’s earnest efforts to put down firm roots with their kids are undermined by others, the system, fate or perhaps an unkind god.

The play’s epilogue arguably leans a little too hard into that idea, but it’s an otherwise masterful realist work. A Case for the Existence of God effortlessly reveals backstory and character, and makes the audience care intensely about Ryan and Keith, particularly their relationships with each other and their (unseen) daughters.

This is another must-see production from director Abrahams, whose other recent successes include Admissions (MTC), Yentl (Kadimah Yiddish Theatre/Malthouse) and Lucrezia Borgia (Melbourne Opera). His simply staged Case for the Existence of God is sensitive, sincere and so well paced that its 75 minutes fly by – including in easy leaps through chronological time between scenes – while also keeping us suspended in hope and fear.

Darcy Kent (Ryan) and Kevin Hofbauer (Keith) are excellent. There is such authenticity about Kent’s hopeless yet hopeful hick, whose moments of awkward gentleness and insight surprise again and again, while Hofbauer reveals the frustrated dreams and anxiety just below the surface of his ostensibly wise, well-educated character. Their rapport is a pleasure to observe.

The actors’ work with dialect coach Matt Furlani grounds Ryan and Keith in the American Northwest while also emphasising the characters’ apparent differences. Their physicality also speaks volumes.

In the opening scene Kent nervously jiggles his leg while reading a financial document, then Hofbauer curls in on himself when taking a potentially ominous phone call. Over time, the pair literally draw closer, but with the uncertainty of men burdened by social expectations of masculinity and sexuality.

Jeremy Pryles’ essentially unchanging set and costumes – button-up check shirt for Keith, loose flanny for Ryan – does a lot with very little. Surrounded on three sides by walls of shiny black plastic and a shallow moat where detritus from each scene gathers, a desk and two chairs whisk us from Keith’s office to his home to a playground. Lit by Sidney Younger, this set suggests the men’s contained little world is floating in a dark, uncaring universe.

A Case for the Existence of God is a case for the power of theatre to reveal the substance of life through that which is insubstantial: looks, gestures, words, spoken with hesitation or anger or kindness, as well as moments of silence. Grab this chance to see it, Melbourne.

A Case for the Existence of God
Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre, Rear 2 Chapel Street, East St Kilda
Performance: Wednesday 17 April 2024
Season continues to 12 May 2024
Information and Bookings: www.redstitch.net

Image: Darcy Kent and Kevin Hofbauer in A Case for the Existence of God – photo by Jodie Hutchinson

Review: Patricia Maunder