November 8, 2008

Proselytizing for “The Atheist”

If they gave out Obies for bravery, Campbell Scott would be a shoo-in to take the prize home. Scott is starring in The Atheist, a one-man show co-produced by the Culture Project and Circle in the Square and playing at the Barrow Street Theatre through Jan. 4. He doesn’t deserve an award just for being on stage alone. Scores of actors do that. But he should get full recognition for playing one of the most despicable characters ever to appear on a stage.

Most actors want to be liked, even when they’re playing villains. But Scott plays this one without asking the audience for one iota of pity. And there’s no other actor there to deflect the disgust. Or even much of a set in which to hide. It’s a totally fearless performance.

The Atheist tells the story of Augustine Early, an unabashedly opportunistic journalist who will do anything—and does—to get ahead. It was written by Ronan Noone, whose name I thought might have been a punnish pseudonym but who turns out to be a 38 year-old Irish-born playwright who emigrated to the U.S. in his 20s and has been making a name for himself (his surname really is Noone) with productions at theater companies in his adoptive home of Massachusetts.

Noone did a stint as a journalist back in Ireland and he apparently wasn’t crazy about his co-workers. The Atheist is a jeremiad against America’s tabloid culture. Augustine Early makes J.J. Hunsecker, the cynical columnist in Sweet Smell of Success, look like Superman's pal Jimmy Olsen.

And that makes the show a tough sell. Who wants to spend so much time with an unrelenting asshole? Several people left during intermission the night I saw it. And the show has received less publicity than most Culture Project productions. My friend Jesse wasn’t impressed either. “Well, that was pretty bad, wasn’t it?” she said, as we walked to the subway after it was over.

The folks at the Barrow Street Theatre seemed to expect that such a feel-bad show might have limited appeal. The night Jesse and I went, they ran out of programs before most of the audience—a fair-sized group—was seated. Some staffer must have run off to Xerox additional copies because right before the show started, an usher rushed in and stood in front of the stage handing them out to audience members (including me) who walked down to get one.

But Scott made a proselytizer out of me. The conceit of the show is that Early is narrating the story of his life—his trailer park childhood, his dead-end assignments as a cub reporter at a Midwestern paper, the chance meeting that changes all that—to a video camera. At times during the show, real-time projections appear on a screen, providing movie-like close-ups that further underscore Scott’s commitment to the role.

Like his namesake, Early wrestles with the meaning of sin. He says that having lost his belief in God at an early age, he can be ruthless because he no longer has to worry about his soul. Noone’s play is clearly ambitious and at times darkly funny but it doesn’t say much we don’t already know about our obsession with celebrity. It’s the expressions on Scott’s face that show us the devastating costs blind ambition can exact, even from those who profess an indifference to right and wrong.

I suppose that Scott inherited the fearlessness (and his acting chops) from his parents, Colleen Dewhurst and George C. Scott, two of the most lionhearted actors ever to walk across a stage (click here to read a Backstage story in which the son talks about his mother, father and the play). He apparently learned something else from them too. The younger Scott is a divorced dad who has custody of his son every other week and so in order to spend time with his boy, and perhaps to keep the play's bile away from him, The Atheist plays only on alternate weeks.


Mondschein said...

I saw this a couple of weeks ago myself and agree with your observations. Scott gives an amazing and unapologetic performance that is not to be missed. I found his performance significantly superior to the play itself.

I'm looking forward to reading your review of "Mindgame." I noticed you in the audience, but didn't get a chance to speak to you that night. Not having posted in almost two months, I managed to tick off two "anonymous" readers very quickly with my own comments about the first act. ;-)

jan@broadwayandme said...

Hey Jimmy, great to hear from you. I'm so sorry you didn't come over at "Mindgame." But I did see your entertaining review of it, as well as the testy comments it provoked. I plan to post my thoughts about the show on Wednesday and we'll see what kind of response it gets. Cheers, jan