sliding away: Campbell Scott in The Atheist.
T Charles Erickson
Ronan Noone, directed by Justin Waldman
Williamstown Theater Festival, Nikos Stage, through July 6
didn’t come into my own until I lost my faith in God, and
then after that, fuckin’ carte blanche,” explains Augustine
Early (Campbell Scott) with chilling nonchalance in the opening
lines of The Atheist. In his one-man drama, playwright
Ronan Noone unleashes the rookie journalist on a relentless
quest for fame and headlines, uninhibited by faith, morality,
or human connection. Williamstown Theater Festival’s deceivingly
Spartan production plumbs the complex implications of his
cold philosophy with heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious, dexterity.
Noone’s script slingshots Early into a maelstrom of “politics,
pornography and power”—the perfect story, according to Early
who, without reservation, insinuates himself in the news he’s
chasing and, through his clever machinations, maneuvers the
players like so many pawns to his advantage: “I realize now
I have this talent for deception.”
The harsh examination of contemporary sensational journalism
is compelling. The plot itself, which—with its sharp humor,
sexual intrigue, energy, drama, and corruption— echoes the
very media it criticizes, offers exactly what Early knows
audiences hunger for. But it is in Early’s downfall, the contrast
between his colorful success and his piercing desolation,
where the play truly shines with purpose and poignancy. It
is through Early’s contradictions that the story packs its
power. He is a man who says he hates loneliness, but has driven
himself to its bleakest borders.
At the opening of Act 2, Early kneels prostrate in quiet confession
of his past. He stands, his words hardening. “You have to
have a faith in yourself. You have to realize you’re alone.
Nothing matters but your own self, history books, and a good
proofreader.” He frequently whips a red silk handkerchief
from his ice-gray-suit pocket (crisply designed by Jessica
Curtright) and offhandedly flaps it like a matador—poised
alone, ready to take on everyone in his path like a charging
bull, aching for the crowd’s applause.
But, asks The Atheist: What is the sum of a life lived
as if every interaction is at once a threat and a game, always
prepared to drive a spike into anyone who comes near you,
and primed to take your bow when they fall? Early lives the
Campbell Scott’s performance is a tightly controlled whirlwind
of deviousness, innocence and desperation. He assaults the
comedy ferociously, the collapse with painful honesty, and
every ebb and flow between with unflagging energy. The role
is an immense challenge. Early is both the play’s villain
and its hero, and Scott skillfully creates a man as callous
as he is vulnerable, who begs contempt and compassion in equal
The austere set by Christina Todesco blends smoothly into
WTF’s industrial and intimate Nikos theatre. It is deceptively
simple, a single metal table and chair just right of center,
a black-edged scrim behind. The bold geometric structure reflects
the familiar film frames of media, and the broken ladders
to success that Early hauls himself along.
Ben Stanton’s lighting works in seamless harmony with Todesco’s
set. The scrim beams with vivid, shifting colors, which echo
(or in rare moments fiercely contrast) Early’s emotional state
and storytelling, providing constant insight into the heart
of a man who rejects the idea of soul.
Between scenes, the lights shift down, and a working video
camera—the play’s most powerful device—projects distorted
live footage of Early onto the scrim. The image is sometimes
fractured, sometimes layered, sometimes larger than life,
sometimes small. Compounded by sound designer Alex Neumann’s
selection of frenetic jazz, the effect is unsettling and insightful;
it speaks to persistent public scrutiny, intense self-examination,
shattered expectations, and the thousand different ways to
spin a single moment.
The play’s single but significant hurdle is an extremely exposition-heavy
first act, which, while engaging, does not have the driving
conflict and heart of Act 2. It is mostly storytelling and
set-up for the intense rollercoaster of the second half, and
Scott’s effort to maintain the momentum is palpable. The script,
and the production, would benefit greatly by taking a red
pen to the pages of Act 1.
But, thanks to tight direction by Justin Waldman, who mines
every moment for layer after layer of paradox, metaphor and
heart, in the end the play packs an affecting punch. It’s
thought-provoking in the way art should be. The insights The
Atheist proffers will continue unfolding for hours after
you’ve left the theater—guaranteed.