What's to like in The Atheist is Campbell Scott. Scott is not only lovely to look at, he is delightful to know. He is an actor with precision – a welcome change from so many actors who flop about the stage as if they were jittery high-schoolers.
Scott is measured and thoughtful in his work, and he is a storyteller who knows that the best stories are told by people who enjoy them. Here Scott enjoys the hell out of the story of Augustine Early, a man whose ethics crumble as his life slips away down the river. He is a man looking for a job on a newspaper. It is his supreme quest, and the way he makes it sound, you would think he was fishing for a Pulitzer. But no.
Early is a small fish in a small pond. But his delusions of grandeur outpace his success as a journalist. He is given a desk in Obituaries to start off, and instead of working himself up from there, he screws himself into a pitch-black hole of petulance and resentment.
Just as all is about to cave in, a Senator, whom Early is blackmailing, reprieves him by calling in a favor. Seems the Senator has been taping Early’s current girlfriend, who is living in the guesthouse on his property. Blah blah blah. Things get out of hand, politician drops dead, girlfriend drops Early, and this leaves him with the Senator’s wife, which turns out to be a whale of an experience, but by about this time we've started checking our watches.
It’s a convoluted tale, and it is only by the grace of Scott’s performance that we follow it at all. What really knocks the caboose off the track are the logistics. For example, when Early is leaving us a suicide note in video form, he sets up a camera to our left, and then proceeds to ignore it 90% of the time. Add to this a camera, which we never see, at the back of the house throwing occasional projections onto the back of the set, and we have stepped pretty much off the chart.
Finally, and this one was, pardon me, a killer – there is an intermission right then. Intermission?? Intermission??? “I’m going to kill myself but first let me take a break?” GIVE me a break.
These three glaring misjudgments may be a product of the writing. There is more tale than torture here. Early is more interested in expounding on his life than ending it. I can understand that, but two acts' worth? And if what is driving him this whole time is the fact that he will be exiting stage right in the permanent way very soon, you wouldn’t know it by Noone’s writing or Waldman’s direction or Scott’s trajectory.
So we are left with a puzzle. When the whole is greater than the sum of its parts we call this synergy. The Atheist is an example of the opposite: when the interaction of the parts creates an overall effect that diminishes the whole. We call this antagonism. Believe me when I tell you.
By Ronan Noone; directed by Justin Waldman
WITH: Campbell Scott (Augustine Early)
Stage manager, Emily Ellen Roberts; sets by Cristina Todesco; lighting by Ben Stanton; costumes by Jessica Curtright; sound by Alex Neumann. Presented by the Culture Project, Allan Buchman, artistic director; Theodore Mann and Paul Libin, producers, Circle in the Square Theater. At the Barrow Street Theater, 27 Barrow Street, at Seventh Avenue, West Village; (212) 352-3101. Through Jan. 4. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.