Thursday, September 13, 2007

Read all about it

Campbell Scott makes his confessions in The Atheist.

Augustine Early, the antihero of Ronan Noone's The Atheist - now at the Calderwood Pavilion, featuring Campbell Scott - almost seems like the antithesis of his sainted namesake (despite a shared penchant for confessions) until, that is, you notice that tell-tale surname. "Early" is both an all-too-apt moniker for a journalist (the latter-day Augustine's trade; the earlier Augustine was patron saint of printers) and a sly ref to the saint's hard-partying youth, prior to the penning of his famous Confessions. With one eye on Rosseau, and another on the tabloids, Noone seems in The Atheist to be attempting a cynical update of the Catholic classic - one that this time ends not in salvation but in self-destruction.

And the playwright at least halfway succeeds - or at least I think he does; it was hard to tell from Campbell Scott's faltering performance on opening night. A year or two ago, I saw Scott essay the script in a reading which poured forth with well-chilled intensity, and since then, the play has had a successful run in New York, with an encouraging Times review. So it seemed that Scott's return engagement would be a sure thing - until memory slips in the second act reduced him to reading directly from the text for long stretches, which sabotaged his smooth, subdued strategy.

For unlike his counterpart in New York (Chris Pine), Scott dispenses with impersonating the characters in Augustine's saga, and concentrates instead on his carapace of smug contempt. He may not be from Hippo, but this Augustine is hip from an early age to the fact that there's no God - and that therefore, in a classic freshman-year spin on Dostoevsky, everything is permitted; hence Augie marches on, conscience-free, through the tabloid trenches (rather fantastically rendered here), dispatching fair-weather friend and foe alike with sneering sang froid. Scott essentially dusts off his lauded turn as the vulnerable asshole in the film Roger Dodger, but even if it feels second-hand, his method still cuts cleanly against the outrageousness of the monologue (with its rapists, harnesses, and big-titted innocents), while respecting Noone's finely-tuned rhythms and beats. Justin Waldman's staging likewise neatly frames the portrayal with video cameras and rear-screen projections, which together insinuate this "confession" is merely another variation on Augustine's obsession with exposure and surveillance (even self-surveillance).

Alas, Campbell's performance slowly turned to soup on opening night, but even if it had simmered till the finish (as it no doubt will as the run goes on), how impressive would Noone's work be? It's hard to tell. Certainly the script grows repetitive, as its fratboy nihilism wears thin, and unfortunately, Augustine's second-act encounter with an intriguing, possibly redemptive figure, Mrs. Wallace (why not Mrs. Ambrose?), devolves into reductive anticlimax. Likewise, despite the script's avowed amorality, we can still make out, across the moral vacuum, Father Flanagan wagging his finger at us. So I'm afraid I'm an agnostic on The Atheist; but with higher stakes in Act II, and a stronger performance from his star, Noone could still convert me.


  1. "The nihilist's talent is to stain very large swatches of life to the point where all other contemporary writing is rendered sentimentalist."

    -James Wood reviewing Michel Hollenbeq

  2. I do think Noone wants to get further than nihilism - and of course it's okay for Augustine to eventually descend into destruction (or at least self-obliteration). What Noone hasn't done yet is powerfully evoke the moral dimension that Augustine is missing - the possibility for humility and repentance that he's vaguely aware of, but can't quite grasp, and which alone can turn his self-exposure into a true confession.

  3. Oh, I agree. Noone is not a nihilist.

    I was just thinking out loud. (Or letting Wood think out loud.)

    But I think it is a trap that many writers fall into, and it is hard to escape.

    How to offer redemption without evoking the Hollywood happy ending?

    A technique is to lace the text with little glimmers of far off realizations or whispers of something more noble.

    For example: The text of the literary novel in Mamet's Speed the Plow invades with hints of aspiring to something more than commercial entertainment creation.

    Beckett probably pulled this off the best in Krapp's Last Tape. The difference is that Krapp surrenders to the seemingly sentimental, even over the powerful experience of the storm crashing on the rocks, (an homage to Proust's narrator.)

  4. Hmmmm . . . I'm not sure I'm with you on Krapp, but that's a debate for another day. In The Atheist, the critical issue seems to lie in the development of the figure of "Mrs. Wallace," a kind of virgin in the whorehouse of Augustine's tabloid hell. Their relationship, though seen through the flattened prism of Augustine's mechanical sensibility, hints at larger themes - until it's flattened in a short "scene" (involving the death of a swallow - shouldn't that be a sparrow, sweet prince?) that right now is rather obviously underwritten. If Noone is still open to tinkering with the script, that's where he should start.