Samuel D. Hunter.
What’s in a title? With plays by the prolific Samuel D. Hunter, you typically either get a place name to ground the action (Lewiston/Clarkston, Pocatello, Greater Clements, A Bright New Boise), or gnomic, suggestive nouns that hint at grander themes: The Few, The Harvest, The Whale, A Permanent Image. For his newest play, now at New York’s Signature Theatre as part of a five-year residency there, Hunter has gone a different route, choosing the stark, provocative title A Case for the Existence of God, which sounds like something you might see at an airport bookstore, or perhaps in a Tony Kushner subtitle.
The play is a departure for Hunter in other ways: It has his smallest cast yet, just two actors on a single set (expertly designed by Arnulfo Maldonado). And they are not there to debate theology but to wrestle over mortgage lending, single parenting, and life in declining small-town America. That last bit has been Hunter’s enduring setting and subject—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that small-town Idaho, where he was raised and maintains ties, has been the lens through which he’s taken the measure of the human soul, and mined for remarkable beauty, terror, and humor.
Hunter’s previous play, Greater Clements (which American Theatre was proud to publish in its last print issue to date) was a sprawling tragedy worth of O’Neill, given a suitably grand staging at Lincoln Center Theater by Hunter’s longtime collaborator, director Davis McCallum. A Case for the Existence of God, though inarguably smaller in scale, is no less theatrically ambitious in its own lane, with sharp, attuned direction by David Cromer.
I spoke to Sam earlier this week via Zoom; he lives in Inwood, on the north end of Manhattan, with his husband, dramaturg-playwright John Baker, and their daughter.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: I have to start with the title, and how that relates to what we see onstage, which is not a lecture or a sermon, thank God. Where did this play come from and what’s that title about?
SAM HUNTER: I wrote the play before the pandemic. The very clear starting point was that we adopted a kid, right after we had a horrifically hard time buying this apartment. It just came from the sense of: These middle-class, normal things of having a family and owning an apartment don’t sound they should be some of the hardest things you’ve ever endeavored to do; these should be sort of normal American things. But it was so incredibly complicated and so hard. So the play is about these systems that we all have to enter into in order to live as American people if we’re not hyper-wealthy, systems that are incredibly Byzantine and overworked, and it just seems like they’re getting worse.
When I first started writing it, I was like, I don’t know if this is a play. I had this initial idea of two guys in a cubicle who don’t stand up. And I was like: That is not a good idea. But let me try. And the only thing that made me think, maybe this is a play, is when I came up with the title. Because I thought, maybe the movement of this play is: It has this title that could not be more grandiose, it’s as big as a cathedral, and then you walk in and there are two guys sitting in a cubicle talking about mortgages for a really long time. And the mortgage isn’t a metaphor; they’re just talking about mortgages. I think the audience is just sort of like, wow, where are we going? What is this? What is the fundamental concern of this play? I don’t know if the play would fundamentally work without that title. The movement of the play is that it starts in this tiny, quotidian way, and it grows and grows and grows in an effort to meet that title.
Right, so the “case” is in how these two characters’ lives do and don’t work out. One character refers a few times to the need to believe that things make sense, but they otherwise don’t talk about God or religion at all, do they?
Each of the characters has one instance of kind of appealing to God, but yeah, there’s no theological discussion whatsoever. And weirdly, in 2022, I think a title like this is provocative, especially Off-Broadway.
Given that, I think it’s only fair to ask you straightforwardly: I know you were raised as a fundamentalist Christian. Do you consider yourself a believer now?
I’ve debated whether or not to go there. I know that Lucas Hnath was asked about that a lot [in regard to The Christians], and he’s always sort of like, “No, this is deeply private, just for me.” It’s funny, he and I are co-teaching something at NYU right now, and I kind of always want to ask him, but I just feel like, it’s not for public consumption.
Yeah, I think I might have to do the Lucas and Will thing, as annoying as that is.
No, I get it. As you say, it’s become a political statement to align yourself with religion these days.
I mean, what I will say is that the reason that I hold it so close to the vest is because American Christianity has become such a political force in this country, in a way that I find deeply, deeply troubling. I hate that an expression of religious beliefs brings along this sort of muck bucket of political stuff. You know what I mean?
Absolutely. And of course, churches are human institutions, so they’re inherently political, even the one I go to, which is inclusive.
How about a church that’s about spirituality? This is the thing that I find so sad about religion in America, is that it’s so much not about religion. It’s become about these social and political issues. These churches have become like political rallies more than churches, and I think that’s why the right has been so successful. And the left doesn’t have a version of that. It’s really troubling.
Will Brill and Kyle Beltran in “A Case for the Existence of God” at Signature Theatre. (Photo by Emilio Madrid)
The “case” of the play obviously can’t be boiled down, but one thing Christians believe is that we are Christ to each other, and that seems to be a thread here too—that if a force like God exists at all, that manifests through who these guys are to each other.
It’s kind of like the anti-Sartre. He said, “Hell is other people.” And this play is: “God is other people.”
I happened to be reckoning with Ibsen’s Ghosts recently, and that’s not about literally haunting but about the fear of replicating patterns among generations. That fear seems to be very alive in your play too.
The idea the play implicitly talks about is that a life is actually quite short. A life is kind of a simple thing: You’re born, you age for an undetermined amount of time, and then you die. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But a day is incredibly long and complicated, and almost infinitely complex—getting through a day is like Ulysses. It’s this monumental thing. And the days that the guys in this play are going through are so difficult, like going to war. But at the end of the day, the play sort of rises to this longer view: of great grandparents in 1902, and kids who will live to see the year 2100, and we’re just this little thing that happens in that space.
I hear you on the daily struggle. I think it becomes particularly acute once you became a parent and are responsible for other humans.
Totally. Thinking about Greater Clements, that is a three-act tragedy. I wrote it right after Donald Trump was elected, when I was really just so scared about where the country was going and the way that we all felt. So that was me just running straight into the abyss. And then I had a kid, and all of a sudden, it was like: Oh, I don’t think I have the luxury of running into the abyss anymore. Because there’s this person in my life, and I am tasked with ushering her into life, into American society, into the world at large. It almost revealed cynicism or pessimism to be kind of cheap and easy. But the complicated thing is that once I was like, Okay, I can’t be cynical or pessimistic anymore—then what does that mean? What is on the other side? Because I don’t have hope that is neatly delivered by a religion or a set of cultural values or the government or whatever. So clearing all that away, it’s sort of like, where are the places that I can find hope for me and my kid in this deeply complicated world? I think that’s what the concern of the play is: I kind of burned everything down with Greater Clements, and what is coming out of the ashes of that?
I think you also talked about how some of the intergenerational issues in Greater Clements were inspired by your plans to start a family, and your anxieties around that.
But then the kid arrives, and the kid is beautiful and healthy, and there’s this thing that happens—it must be like a physiological shift in your brain when you have a kid. There’s like a rebirth that happens, a spiritual birth that happens. You know what I mean?
Yes. We can call it spiritual, but it does also seem to come from somewhere almost physical, as you say—the sense that we have another creature we’re responsible for, and we have to build or leave something for them.
It’s in our primate brains. And we are social creatures; we cannot exist in isolation, which is why solitary confinement is one of the most horrifying things our American government is doing right now. We are social creatures who need each other to survive right now, and I think we’re all feeling that after the last few years.
Shifting gears a bit, have you ever written a two-hander before?
I wrote a two-hander in graduate school. I love two-handers but they’re really hard to write. I probably had more first drafts, or skeletal drafts, of this play than any other play I’ve written. But I love the form, because you can just dive so deep. Greater Clements was just gigantic—the length of it, the set, everything was for me kind of maximalist. After that, I was like: I want to go back to the beginning, and write a play you can produce with full integrity in your living room. After both Lewiston/Clarkston and Greater Clements, these big, huge, honkin’ things, I’m interested in going incredibly tight. And I think we’ve seen, like with Dana H, that this incredibly tight lens can be the most enticing, beautiful, suspenseful, theatrical thing in the world.
Is the main challenge of a two-hander just varying it up, keeping it interesting?
Especially with a two-hander where I have them sitting on chairs the entire time, I think the dramaturgy of the play is really trying to consistently offer the audience new information or a new turn, a new kind of perception shift on who these guys are, and what the nature of their relationship is. What’s been great is like, when you clear away the stuff that you normally associated with plays, like set changes and costume changes and blocking, it allows you to just really focus on this moment-to-moment stuff. It’s really intense. We had to do six-hour rehearsal days, just because when we tried to do a full eight hours once, we were all utterly exhausted, I think because the work is just so intense and specific.
“Greater Clements” at Lincoln Center Theater in 2019. (Photo by T Charles Erickson)
You don’t live Idaho anymore, but do you visit regularly? And do you feel you have to, to keep up with the state so that your plays about people there feel fresh?
I definitely go back to Idaho. It’s not been as much during the pandemic, but I usually go at least twice a year. And my husband has just started a playwriting residency out in Sun Valley, so now we have yet more connections to that place. But, and I’ve said versions of this over the years, it’s just become a really useful container for me to be able to write about the kinds of people that I want to write about, which are people who exist in the margins in some way. I’ve just never had the instinct of like, writing about fashionable people in New York City.
So we’re never going to see a Manhattan dinner party play from Sam Hunter?
That would be my subversive play. But no. Also, John, my husband and the dramaturg on this show, has curated this really cool lobby display you can see at the Signature, a big map of Idaho that locates all my plays on the map. I love it, just because it’s about this body of work, this larger project; they all are kind of unified and speak to one another in certain ways.
When you talked about wanting to find a place of hope for you and your family, I wonder if you think of the theatre that way? I’m not the only person I know who thinks of theatre as a kind of church.
Yeah. I’ve wanted to find a church for my daughter, not for the religion of it, but there is a physical thing that goes on when you pray together, or sing together, or chant together—that is something that humans are meant to do. Having gone to a fundamentalist Christian school, and having been outed [as gay] there, I felt very rejected and hurt by Christianity. But I still also feel a real pull toward that gathering and that communion. I think that’s why I started writing plays rather than novels or poems or whatever, because I’m really interested in that kind of shared experience. That sounds kind of pretentious.
If that’s pretentious, guilty as charged. Do you still feel that way, though, given the existential challenges theatres have faced in the past two years?
Yeah. I mean, the theatre is really suffering right now, that’s obvious. But there’s never not going to be an American theatre. We don’t know what it’s gonna look like; it might get really hard. If things get really hard, TV and movies might even go away, but theatre is never gonna go anywhere. We’re always going to need it. It’s always going to be made. I think maybe that’s one of the reasons that I wanted to write a play that can be produced so simply, because I don’t want there to be any barriers to being able to do this play.
Rob Weinert-Kendt is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!