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Slip sliding away: Campbell Scott in The Atheist.

Photo: T Charles Erickson

Ethics Be Damned?

By Kathryn Lange

The Atheist

By Ronan Noone, directed by Justin Waldman

Williamstown Theater Festival, Nikos Stage, through July 6

‘I 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 answer.

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 measure.

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.


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