The Honest-to-God True Story of the Atheist
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 13, 2008
Dan Trujillo's play The Honest-to-God True Story of the Atheist begins with a man on stage hawking Viagra. After a strenuous (and humorous) pitch, the salesman shifts gears slightly:
I see. Some of you are Doubting Thomases. What is it? Don't believe Viagra will bring sex-tasy into your lives? That it will make the flaccid man firm, so he may give the woman or man he loves a cornucopia of sexual delights? Maybe you don't think I'm even selling Viagra. Maybe you think these are Tylenol. You got me there. I could be a scoundrel. A flim-flam artist, as they used to say, a con, a cheat, a man of no ethics looking to make a quick buck off of honest workaday people such as yourselves.
From here, our Viagra Guy—increasingly seeming like a con artist—waxes philosophical:
Wouldn't it be wonderful if people always offered a fair deal, this for that, honesty, no tricks, no subterfuges? What a world that would be. But we don't live in that world, so when I offer the nearest thing to a holy miracle you will find short of an actual holy miracle, I face the folded arms and sour expressions of my fellow human beings, a Great Wall of Skepticism.
Two people in the last row of the audience—obvious "plants," portrayed by the other two actors in the show—soon bring our salesman back on track. He needs Viagra, She tells us. He denies it, then admits it, then agrees to try a free sample. But if there's no miracle in his trousers after an hour, well...
And then we segue, rather abruptly, into what the play's title promises. The artifice of the three performers pretending to be seller and buyers morphs into the less slick artifice of three actors doing some postmodern story theatre, recounting the tale of an atheist who decided to prove the non-existence of (the Christian) God by heisting a plastic Baby Jesus statue from a nativity scene and then, with two atheist friends, cutting the doll into pieces and burying them in various locations. The idea is that if they aren't struck down by the Deity in the process of committing all this sacrilege, there must not be a Deity at all.
But it is implied, as the play progresses in its postmodern vaudevillian way (think anything by Waterwell for a sense of the style of the show), that the Deity—or Something—strikes back at every turn. The plastic Baby Jesus bleeds when it is cut apart. The atheist burns his hands with the acid he uses to disfigure the doll. The atheist's associates come upon hard times, Job-like (ironically), after their public denial of God. And the atheist himself eventually winds up in prison, wondering if he can place faith in a miracle or even prayer after a lifetime of non-belief.
All of this is enacted with great style and wit by three expert performers, Abe Goldfarb (the husband and the atheist), Jennifer Gordon Thomas (the wife), and Daryl Lathon (the salesman). (Maybe the three are also supposed to be Adam, Eve, and the Serpent.) There's also lively musical accompaniment by keyboardist Wes Matthews, and a tremendously effective lighting by Sabrina Braswell. Director Isaac Butler keeps the pace brisk and the mood ever-changing; sometimes we're delightedly detached from the downright silliness of the atheist and/or his opponents, and then, turning on a dime, we're caught up in the essential seriousness of the great unknowable that the atheist seems to be taking for granted. I kept wanting to ascribe a point of view to the show, and to make its unbridled artificiality fit in with that point of view.
Trujillo seems to tell us, finally, that the miracle of faith is something human beings crave—not unlike the miracle of potency that Viagra says it can bring to those who partake of it. (Trujillo brings the play full circle, back to his Viagra seller, to make the point.) Trouble is, the "miracle" of Viagra is in fact not a miracle—it's an entirely tangible thing with documented results.
If only religion could offer up similar proofs and evidences! But it can't, and so it turns out that the con man at the heart of this play is engaging in a kind of bait-and-switch, and a rather facile and dangerous one at that.