Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 2008
George Bernard Shaw grouped his earliest published plays into volumes entitled Pleasant and Unpleasant. Using that system, Ronan Noone’s The Atheist, currently on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, is decidedly an Unpleasant Play.
An Unpleasant Play is not a Bad Play, although they can be offensive enough to keep some people away in the first place and drive others out at intermission or even before. For instance, King Lear is an Unpleasant Play, but it is also a Great Play. It is good to see King Lear well performed, but it is not pleasant, same with Oedipus Rex and just about every other Greek and Roman tragedy. Sweeney Todd is exceedingly Unpleasant. You get the idea.
If The Atheist were merely an Unpleasant Play about an Unpleasant Man it would be a Bad Play, but Noone is a good enough writer and, in this production, Campbell Scott is a good enough actor to make all the unpleasantness worthwhile – if you can stomach the filth.
The Atheist is a one-man show about a fictional tabloid journalist named Augustine Early (Campbell Scott). It reminded me of two shows I had reviewed previously at Barrington Stage. The setting reminded me strongly of this past winter's disastrously dull production of Trumbo: Red, White, and Blacklisted, and the subject matter reminded me of St. Nicholas which I saw the first half of many, many years ago.
Like Trumbo this is a play in which a lone writer sits in a chair behind a desk/table and reads to us from his writing, swigging copious amounts of whiskey-colored water all the while. Luckily director Justin Waldman gets Scott/Early up and prowling around a good deal more than Julianne Boyd managed to dislodge Thom Christopher as Dalton Trumbo from his chair. Also, Christopher WAS actually reading, whereas Scott has memorized his monologue (that was not the case when he performed the show at the Huntington this past fall – reviews make mention of him obviously being “on book” during performances.)
And like St. Nicholas this is a play in which an Irish playwright unsheathes his claws and takes a great, soul-cleansing swipe at the Fourth Estate. St. Nicholas was about a Dublin theatre critic who found his life and career so soul-sucking that he felt there was no alternative but to become a vampire (I am NOT making that up!) The Atheist is about a tabloid journalist who finds his life and career so soul-sucking that he feels that there is no choice but to renounce God and kill himself. Apparently, any journalist with scruples belongs undead or dead.
I understand that artists hate critics. I am an artist and I am a critic and I get it. This is actually at the center of Augustine Early’s angst – he is a journalist and he is a critic of journalism, he is literally his own worst enemy. (You will not be surprised to learn that Noone began his writing career in journalism.)
And Early engages in the worst kind of yellow journalism, exploiting human frailty and failings for profit. It is really easy to loathe that kind of journalism and that kind of journalist. And here is where Noone’s artistry comes in to play, creating for us a three-dimensional and fully human specimen of the journalistic bottom-feeder. You understand Augustine Early and because of that you almost come to like him, to side with him, to comprehend how he can do what he does.
From a random hook-up at a bar (this play is ALL about really kinky sex, so bear with me) Early becomes aware that a Congressman is peeping on the women to whom he rents his guest house. Through the course of the play Early recounts for a video camera, reading frequently from the copious diaries he keeps, how he used this information to advance his own career, and several other peoples, while systematically destroying the career, marriage, and life of the Congressman. Nothing that Early does is nice or legal. It is, and he is, thoroughly unpleasant. This is his suicide note.
And the way Early gives himself permission to behave this badly is by renouncing God and terming himself an Atheist. There is no God. There is no heaven or hell. This life we have here on earth is all we get, so there is no need to think of anyone but yourself in all your actions. This is a great smoke screen, as we come to understand how deeply religious Early really is (his name is Augustine, for starters). At one point he seeks redemption by proposing to the virgin widow of the Congressman, who rejects him after he wrings the neck of a dying bird who has struck the windshield of their car. The bird is beyond help, and he tells her so, but she won’t accept the truth and leaves. Noone then has Early apply nearly the same language with which he described the bird to himself. His decision to commit suicide is merely another mercy killing of a creature so close to hell as to be irredeemable.
Noone and his alter ego Early are making very strong points about the vileness and inhumanity of tabloid journalism, which of course exists, survives, and thrives because the public laps it up, like a dog at his own vomit. Rapists often claim their victims “asked for it,” well this rape of the soul and violation of human dignity is one that we ask for every time we pick up The National Enquirer or tune in to Entertainment Tonight or even seemly innocuous talk fests like Oprah (referred to here as “The Fat O Show.”) And then we hypocritically howl, as Augustine Early wryly notes, that the press is the villain and the perpetrators of the crimes they publicize are the victims. Early also clearly makes the point that a great many people involved in the “scandal” he unearths, benefit greatly, more than he does.
The WTF literally snuck The Atheist in to town. It has had New York and London productions, as well as a staged reading as part of the Huntington Theatre Company's 2006 Breaking Ground Festival and the fall 2007 production there mentioned earlier. In fact this IS the fall 2007 production, imported cast, designers, and director from Huntington, just like She Loves Me, which begins previews on the MainStage this weekend. It is only in its Huntington incarnations that Scott has been involved. Noone was a Huntington Playwriting Fellow and Waldman directed both this play and his Brendan there. Waldman was an artistic associate at the Huntington, a title he now holds at the WTF, and the founder and producing artistic director of Next Stages.
There is nothing wrong with newly-minted WTF Artistic Director Nicholas Martin bringing actors, directors, designers, even entire productions, with him from the Huntington to Williamstown. What is very, very odd is that The Atheist arrived literally unheralded (the press release was three paragraphs long and it doesn’t even appear on the WTF Web site), as if it was something to be ashamed of, just as Augustine’s trailer trash Mama is ashamed of his rise to fame by inflicting misery and debauchery on others, which it isn’t. Like I said, it is an Unpleasant Play but not a Bad one. And Campbell Scott is a popular actor who has appeared in Williamstown several times before and who obviously has a deep interest in this role and this script. Why weren’t Scott, Waldman, and/or Noone made available to the press for interviews before the opening to explain this piece to the public, as other area theatres routinely do for every show? This is a play that will sit better with an audience if they are prepared for its unpleasantness and have some inkling what the playwright, director and star are about.
If you are steeled for a fine production of an Unpleasant Play, and if a whole lot of very foul language and frank discussion of fairly “creative” sex practices doesn’t bother you, I recommend checking out The Atheist. Scott’s performance is excellent, as is Waldman’s direction, and it is quite mesmerizing to see such a fine artist in the intimate confines of the Nikos Stage. Noone is a rising young playwright and I would not be surprised to see Martin feature more of his work here in the coming years. The set design by Christina Todesco, lights by Ben Stanton, and sound by Alex Neumann meld together into a seamless and intriguing whole. Light and video projections form as much of the set as the table, chair, platform and framing structure in the background do.
We watch Augustine Early pour his heart and soul out to us….why? Because we can’t, and we don’t, look away.
The Atheist runs through July 6 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs an hour and thirty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for adults only. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008