Deep into “A Case for the Existence of God,” the latest evocative drama from playwright Samuel D. Hunter, one of the two characters tells the other about an aimless drive he’s just taken on the outskirts of town.
Feeling lost, he’d spotted an abandoned shack and stopped to get out of his truck. All he could hear was the shrill drone of a high tension wire overhead.
Ryan (Jesse Hinson), the narrator of this story, seems to have an incessant buzz between his ears. A hapless yogurt factory employee in work boots and an unbuttoned flannel shirt, he’s full of nervous energy. Ryan is in the middle of a divorce, and he has come to the office of a mortgage broker hoping to secure a loan. He’s trying to buy a piece of property so he can convince the judge he’s worthy of partial custody of his child.
The broker, Keith (De’Lon Grant), is caring for a toddler of his own. A single Black man, he is fostering a year-old baby girl in the hopes of adopting her.
The similarity of their predicaments brings these two 30-something men together in a halting attempt at male friendship. Running through Feb. 17 in its New England premiere at the Calderwood Pavilion, presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company, “A Case for the Existence of God” lives up to its lofty title in the palpable tensions of its two characters and the quiet anguish of the actors who portray them.
Keith is an outwardly pleasant, can-do man who still lives in Twin Falls, Idaho, where he grew up. When he was younger, he loved to travel; in college, he studied early music. But he has settled for his job in the mortgage business, and he feels the claustrophobia of his circumstances, epitomized by the dreary cubicle where the play is set.
Ryan’s utter lack of self-worth is endearing, and affecting. When Keith uses the word “harrowing,” Ryan admits he doesn’t know what it means. Enlightened, he tries working it into a sentence of his own.
Over several visits to the office — scenes shift by a mere flickering of the fluorescent light overhead — Keith and Ryan come to confide in each other. They’re both lonely and frankly fearful about their daughters’ futures, and their own roles in them. Clearly, they have no one else to talk to.
Compounding the clumsiness of this budding bromance is the fact that Keith identifies as a gay man. But Keith’s sexual orientation is a matter of fact — no more, no less.
Hunter, the playwright, is finely tuned to isolation and the longing for human connection. He wrote “The Whale,” which he adapted as a screenplay for Darren Aronofsky’s 2022 film of the same name.
In the hands of director Melinda Lopez, a local treasure as an actor, playwright, and educator, “A Case for the Existence of God” slowly but surely transcends the mundanity of the office space and the incidental meeting of these two men. They grow to appreciate each other’s company, sharing a bottle of whiskey at Keith’s place while listening to the baby monitor. Later, they sit shoulder to shoulder on a bench at a playground, gazing past the audience as they watch their daughters play together, scrambling to take a picture when they see the girls holding hands.
But the omens are troubling. Sound designer Aubrey Dube and lighting designer Elmer Martinez make the most of the minimal setting, using long shadows and an effective bit of industrial noise. When the tension breaks, it’s shocking, if not quite a surprise.
Grace notes are sparing, but effective. There’s a small stuffed bunny, hidden in one of Keith’s cubicle drawers, that may stagger you. Aretha Franklin’s version of “I Say a Little Prayer” has never sounded so bittersweet.
Why do bad things happen to good people? It is, of course, an age-old question. Keith is a good person. Ryan knows he’s a mess, but he wants to be a good person, too. Early on, when he’s trying to understand why his bad credit score should stand in the way of the loan he needs, Keith explains, as gently as he can.
“To be honest,” he says, “they don’t care about you as a human.”
It is, as Ryan might say, harrowing.
And when this small, intimate story peaks, the stage itself cracks open, as if by an act of God.
A CASE FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
By Samuel D. Hunter. Directed by Melinda Lopez. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont St. Through Feb. 17. Tickets start at $25. 617-933-8600, SpeakEasyStage.com
James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @sullivanjames.