nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 9, 2008
I didn't come into my own
Understand my talent that is
Until after I lost my faith in God
And once I let that go
Fuckin' carte blanche
- Augustine Early, The Atheist
An Atheist loves his fellow man instead of god. An Atheist believes that heaven is something for which we should work now—here on earth for all men together to enjoy....He wants an ethical way of life....He believes that we are our brother's keepers; and are keepers of our own lives; that we are responsible persons and the job is here and the time is now.
- Definition of Atheism in Murray v. Curlett (see full definition here)
What troubled me most about Ronan Noone's new play The Atheist is the way that it appropriates the name of a belief system for its title and then presents a character who doesn't believe in that system at all. Augustine Early, the protagonist of Noone's play, may say that he doesn't have faith in God, but in fact he has no faith in humanity. What he is is utterly amoral, which is not the same as being an Atheist. In the midst of the "culture wars" that plague America nowadays, it strikes me as particularly irresponsible to equate Atheism with amorality, even if intended ironically or rakishly.
Augustine, played with relish by the excellent actor Campbell Scott, is relating his life story to a video camera, with us in the audience as eavesdroppers; the reason for the taping will be revealed before the show concludes, and it proves a worthy payoff. The outlines of that life story are these: born and raised in a trailer park in Kansas, Early discovers young that his talent is for journalism—specifically a kind of journalism that preys equally on the good nature and gullibility of those he charms and on the voracious appetite for sensationalism and schadenfraude that Early rightly sees in an eager audience of potential readers.
Early's triumph—the main tale that he recounts for us here—concerns his relationship with a beautiful young woman who says she's an ophthalmologist but wants to be an actress. She lives in the guest house of a prominent U.S. Congressman, and it turns out that he (the Congressman) has been secretly videotaping her in her bathroom. Early engineers a way to play this delicious sex scandal for all its worth, making and breaking people's careers (his own included) in the process.
Early's yarn reminded me of the long, twisty, slightly incredible narratives that people tell in Conor McPherson plays —particularly in terms of its incredibility. While I am prepared to believe that a Congressman might manufacture pornographic tapes or that his marriage has never been consummated, I'm not sure I can swallow the notion that a young woman who becomes famous for a YouTube-type video that shows her (graphically) masturbating will land a part on a daytime soap opera within a few days.
I also found it hard to understand exactly when Noone wants his story to take place. Early talks a lot about the Internet (that video, for example), but he characterizes his own success in terms of how large a font is used for his headlines. Seems to me that a man with such modern talents would set his sights on the more lucrative worlds of blogging or TV journalism rather than on a dying medium like the newspaper.
Now, all of the above said, The Atheist is still an enjoyable evening of theatre in its way, especially for the artistry of Scott's performance. The play is a tour de force for the actor, offering him a chance to play a lovable (though never likable) rogue, someone whose exotic nastiness is vicariously titillating since we know he's a fictional character and he won't do any of the rotten things he describes to us personally. If you crave that sort of a thrill, this show may be for you.
But, notwithstanding the fine work of Scott and director Justin Waldman, I left The Atheist wondering what I was supposed to take away from it—and worried that too many people would reach the wrong conclusion about how typical an Atheist Augustine Early might actually be.