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Playwright Samuel D. Hunter ponders ‘The Existence of God,’ and the existence of hope

Jesse Hinson (left) and De'Lon Grant rehearse a scene from "A Case for the Existence of God" at SpeakEasy Stage Company.Nile Scott Studios

The landscape of a Samuel D. Hunter drama is populated with the kinds of everyday outcasts, lonesome lost souls, and disenchanted American dreamers who are hallmarks of a nation divided between haves and have-nots. In plays like “A Bright New Boise,” “The Whale,” “Greater Clements,” and “The Few,” Hunter writes with empathy and a keen eye about misfortunate misfits and melancholic loners whose struggles to eke out a living rival the depths of their emotional despair.

In his acclaimed 2022 drama “A Case for the Existence of God,” which SpeakEasy Stage Company is mounting at the Calderwood Pavilion through Feb. 17, audiences will find another pair of poignant characters. Thirty-something single fathers living in Twin Falls, Idaho, Keith and Ryan couldn’t be more different. But this lonesome duo forges a tentative friendship over efforts to create stability and family for their daughters while navigating complex systems — buying a house, adopting a child — in which the decks seemed stacked against them.

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“This play masquerades as a realistic encounter between two men in an office,” says Melinda Lopez, the renowned Boston actress and playwright who’s directing the play. “It seduces you into thinking that it’s ordinary, but it’s just explosively extraordinary. It turns out to be a profoundly beautiful meditation on loneliness and reaching out to other people and taking risks.”

Keith (De’Lon Grant), a gay Black man who works as a mortgage broker, grapples with the fear and uncertainty of fostering a 16-month-old child he’s hoping to adopt. Cerebral and fastidious yet a tangle of nerves, Keith has been raising the girl since she was born, but his adoption plans could get scuttled if a relative of the child’s birth mother emerges.

Ryan (Jesse Hinson) toils in the local yogurt factory and is sharing custody of his 15-month-old daughter with his soon-to-be ex-wife. When the play opens, Keith is trying to help perpetual screw-up Ryan secure a mortgage for land on which he hopes to someday build a house and raise his daughter.

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“Both of them feel like there’s this cliff they’re heading toward,” Hunter says. “In different ways, they’re terrified about the future, and they find a bond, a true sense of friendship and love for each other in navigating that really rough terrain.”

Director Melinda Lopez observes a rehearsal for "A Case for the Existence of God." She describes Samuel D. Hunter's play as a "profoundly beautiful meditation on loneliness."Nile Hawver

Having set all of his plays in Idaho, the state in which he grew up, Hunter acknowledges that his work contains “a lot of auto-fiction where I take stuff from my own life and fictionalize it, and I definitely did that with this.”

He was inspired to write “A Case for the Existence of God,” named the best play of 2021-22 by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle, after he and his husband, dramaturg John Baker, tried to buy an apartment in New York City and adopt a child within the span of a few years.

“These are very middle-class goals — owning property and having a kid. But both of them were just so incredibly difficult for us,” Hunter explains over Zoom. “I think I can safely say they were the two hardest things my husband and I have ever embarked upon. These very middle-class goals felt like summiting Mount Everest.”

What does it say about the state of the nation and the American Dream, he thought, that these ordinary working-class aspirations “felt so out of reach”? That conundrum served as the jumping-off point for the play.

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At the same time, Hunter felt like he hadn’t seen many stories on stage or screen about platonic male friendship. During an early reading of “Case,” one of his writer friends commented afterward that he “kept waiting for the characters to either punch each other or kiss each other,” recalls Hunter, whose 2012 drama “The Whale” (also presented at SpeakEasy) was adapted into a film that won Brendan Fraser the best actor Oscar last year. “I think it’s a disservice we’re doing in the way that the culture portrays male friendships, that it either leads to fighting or to [sex]. Young men are being taught that these are the only ways they can navigate relationships with other guys.”

Playwright Samuel D. HunterHandout

After becoming a father, Hunter felt like he “no longer had the luxury of cynicism. Why would I choose to raise a kid into a world that I thought was irredeemable?”

“It’s kind of perversely comforting to be like, ‘Well, we’re all just going to [expletive]. There’s this idea that to be hopeful or optimistic is somehow intellectually vapid. But, actually, I think it’s the reverse. Finding hope is a really difficult project in 2024, and being cynical is intensely easy.”

For such an intimate drama that takes place largely in an office cubicle, Hunter agrees that the title “A Case for the Existence of God” could not be more provocative, and indeed it did rankle some theatergoers. He remembers driving in Idaho to visit family with his daughter in the back seat and the title coming into his mind. Still, he “doubted it” for a long time.

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“The experiment is that the audience enters into this play with this crazy big banner of a title, and they’re like, ‘OK, what am I in for?’ And then they sit down, and it’s these two guys in a cubicle talking about a small loan for 25 minutes,” he says. “It puts the audience on the hunt. What is this play actually up to? And hopefully by the end, the play meets the grandness of the title.”

A CASE FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD

Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Jan. 26-Feb. 17. Tickets from $25. 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com