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To revive us, we need plays like the Pulitzer-winning ‘Fat Ham’

James Ijames’s comedy and Samuel D. Hunter’s ‘A Case for the Existence of God’ amount to theatrical manna

Chris Herbie Holland, left, and Marcel Spears in James Ijames's “Fat Ham” at off-Broadway's Public Theater. (Joan Marcus)
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NEW YORK — Here’s to the playwrights who quip. And yes, please, everybody laugh, because things are terrible right now, and we can all use the kind of release activated by being with other people and sharing an hour or two of funny respite.

Chief among the blessed humorists at the moment: James Ijames, whose divine comedy “Fat Ham” just won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. (A thanks to the Pulitzers for recognizing a play with a thoroughly joyful leitmotif.) The work made its debut last year as a digital production by Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater, where Ijames is one of three co-artistic directors.

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And now, at the Public Theater, in a production with the National Black Theatre, the show gets its live theatrical premiere, courtesy of director Saheem Ali and a terrific corps of seven actors who plant their feet firmly in Ijames’s cheeky turf. (His surname is pronounced IMES.) “Fat Ham” is not the most delicately wrought work of dramatic literature ever to win the esteemed prize. Nor as a riff on “Hamlet” can it claim 100 percent originality: Shakespeare’s soliloquies find their way into the audience asides delivered by Marcel Spears’s nimbly rendered Juicy. He portrays a student at an online university whose usurping uncle leaps into his mother’s bed.

It is all unabashedly entertaining and one of a spate of enticing new plays that are destined to be seen on stages across the country, offering fresh hope to theaters and theatergoers who are willing the industry back to full health. Anecdotal reports, and my own observations, indicate that playhouses are not filling seats the way they did before the pandemic, and some artistic directors say an attendance drop-off of 10 to 20 percent may be long-lasting.

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Plays like “Fat Ham” and “John Proctor Is the Villain,” Kimberly Belflower’s terrific revisionist take on “The Crucible,” now at D.C.'s Studio Theatre, are of an accomplished caliber to spearhead a more vibrant return to live performance. Another is Samuel D. Hunter’s deeply affecting “A Case for the Existence of God,” at off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre Company (not to be confused with the Arlington, Va., troupe of the same name).

Hunter has danced with the sublime before, in plays such as “Greater Clements,” his 2019 contemplation of identity and history in an Idaho mining town. Woolly Mammoth Theatre was an early proponent, staging Hunter’s trenchant “A Bright New Boise” in 2011. In “A Case for the Existence of God,” he returns us to Idaho, this time in the company of Keith (Kyle Beltran) and Ryan (Will Brill), whose ever more meaningful and complex friendship explodes all the tired tropes about the emotional bonds between men.

Keith is a mortgage broker and Ryan the woefully underqualified loan applicant who walks into his office — a typically colorless cubicle placed by set designer Arnulfo Maldonado at the ethereal center of the vast Irene Diamond stage. What evolves in that office belies the impersonal surroundings, but not in the soapy ways a writer of lesser gifts might contrive. Keith and Ryan discover a safe space for their free-floating insecurities, their love of being fathers, an essence of masculine intimacy that manages to thrive outside homoeroticism. (Keith, we learn, is straight and Ryan is gay.)

“I think we share a specific kind of sadness, you and me,” Ryan confides, as their various struggles over divorce and foster parenting come to the fore. With incisive input from Hunter and director David Cromer, the smashingly good Brill and Beltran — who were roommates at Carnegie Mellon University — forge a relationship at times tense and tenuous, at others mutually affirmative. Lighting designer Tyler Micoleau is enlisted to devise a clever plan for indicating shifts in time and place without the necessity of Keith and Ryan leaving the office.

The final scene of “A Case for the Existence of God” is as touchingly resonant as the finale in “Fat Ham” is groove-in-your-seat exuberant. Ijames’s meta-theatrical comedy follows melancholy Juicy on the occasion of a backyard barbecue in America celebrating the marriage of his mother, Tedra (the wondrous Nikki Crawford), to Rev (Billy Eugene Jones). Rev probably arranged the shanking in prison of Juicy’s father, Pap, who (in the guise of Jones again) materializes in ghostly white formal wear, traces of smoke wafting out of his hair. Yes, the famous play’s the thing as Ijames’s evocations of storied characters arrive: Ophelia, as Adrianna Mitchell’s Opal, Horatio (Chris Herbie Holland’s Tio), Laertes (Calvin Leon Smith’s Larry) and Polonius (Benja Kay Thomas’s Rabby).

One of the pleasures of “Fat Ham” is its wry act of appropriation; there’s affection, not snark, in Ijames’s embrace of the canon so that the contemporary frictions among the reimagined characters propel the play winningly into social satire. That Mitchell’s risibly restless Opal has no eyes for Juicy — and uptight Marine Larry does — are just two of the many ways “Fat Ham” turns “Hamlet” giddily upside down. In the mouthy matriarchal role, Thomas is a special magnitude of irresistible.

As Juicy, Spears proves an appealing central conveyor of Ijames’s conceits, one of which proposes this latter-day Hamlet as seeking a career in human resources; the job is portrayed here as being for someone who, ahem, has trouble making up his mind. The playwright sneaks in bits of enjoyable wordplay, too, as when Rev lavishes praise on his own grilling skills. “The secret is the rub,” he says. “Ah, there’s the rub,” Juicy replies. Silly for sure — and kind of great.

Fat Ham, by James Ijames. Directed by Saheem Ali. Set, Maruti Evans; costumes, Dominique Fawn Hill; lighting, Stacey Derosier; sound, Mikaal Sulaiman. About 95 minutes. Through July 3 at Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York. publictheater.org.

A Case for the Existence of God, by Samuel D. Hunter. Directed by David Cromer. Set Arnulfo Maldonado; costumes, Brenda Abbandandolo; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; sound, Christopher Darbassie. About 90 minutes. Through June 5 at Signature Theatre, 480 W. 42d St., New York. signaturetheatre.org.

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