Volume 78 / Number 21 - October 22 - 28, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Theater

THE ATHEIST
By Ronan Noone
Directed by Justin Waldman
Barrow Street Theater (Greenwich House)
27 Barrow Street
(212) 243-6262

T Charles Erickson

Campbell Scott is Augustine Early in “The Atheist.”

To hell with humanity

Campbell Scott’s turn as a two-bit journalist with a single focus

By Jerry Tallmer

Three years ago the actor Campbell Scott received a phone call from his friend Nicholas Martin, then the artistic director of the Huntington, Massachusetts, Theatre Company, currently artistic director of the Williamstown, Mass., Theater Festival.

“I’ve got this terrific play by this Boston Irishman,” Martin said. “Would you come to Boston to do a reading of it?”

Scott had never heard of the play, which is called “The Atheist,” and had barely heard of the playwright, a baby-faced, curly-haired “black Irishman” then in his mid-30s.

Baby-faced or not, Ronan Noone wields the language – i.e., the written word – so scathingly that he hopes his grandmother back in Ireland never gets to hear or see it. “In conversation,” says Campbell Scott, “Ronan throws things away, but he’s quite sharp with his pen.”

Or scalpel. New York was briefly exposed to that scalpel when an earlier play of Noone’s, “The Blowin of Baile Gall,” about race relations and bigotry in working-class Ireland, was done at the Irish Arts Center here in 2005.

“The Atheist,” which opened October 12 at the Barrow Street Theater in alternate-weeks repertory with Yvonne Latty’s “In Conflict,” is another cup of tea.

First place, it’s a monologue, all spoken by the actor (Campbell Scott, of course) in the title role.

Second, it’s set in the United States – out there somewhere in middle America; hicksville; Sinclair Lewis country, if you will.

Third, the protagonist, the unscrupulous, ultra-sarcastic, unprincipled disbeliever, is (of all things) a newspaper guy … who will cheerfully sell his soul, and yours too, for a scoop, a byline, a headline in 100 point Times Roman font Bold.
“I live for the word,” says Augustine Early (what a name!), as he climbs rung by rung up the ladder of local fame over the bodies of the sexual and/or political sinners he has exposed by the two-bit journalistic ploy of supposedly sympathetic interviews.

  Augustine Early, who began life as a Disney-dosed kid in a rundown trailer camp, lost his faith in God when, clutching his mother’s umbrella, he had jumped off the roof of their home-on-wheels, crash landing with two broken legs.

All of which, Ronan Noone says, is based on just such a boyhood experience by a friend of his who’d fractured not his legs, but his sternum.

As for the core of the play – the conscienceless, anything-goes scoop-hungry newspaperman – well, says Noone, “I remember my father laughing away at Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in ‘The Front Page.’ ”

That would be the somewhat soft-edged 1974 Billy Wilder remake of the 1931 Hecht-and-MacArthur classic. A far tougher, more sardonic Wilder film is the 1951 “Ace in the Hole” – Campbell Scott remembers it well – in which Kirk Douglas plays a snarling, down-on-his-luck big-city reporter who stumbles on, and extracts every last teardrop of drama from, the ongoing saga of a man trapped up to his neck in a cave-in in New Mexico.)

And then there’s Alexander Mackendrick’s 1957 “Sweet Smell of Success” (screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman); not to mention Budd Schulberg’s seminal “What Makes Sammy Run” (1941); not to mention half a hundred Lee Tracy-type 1930s Hollywood hey babe, gimme-rewrite, stop-the-presses flicks that set the template for all that followed.

Now it can be revealed that Ronan Noone himself underwent a short stretch as an ink-stained journalistic wretch back in Ireland.

In that capacity he had once interviewed “a young man who had sailed a craft from South Africa to America single-handed, and, when he got to Ireland, wanted me to write a story about him so he could raise some money. Then he told me that Immigration had called. I told my editor this, and he said: ‘Great! We’ll put it on the front page.’ So then Immigration did come, and the guy” – the solo skipper – “blamed me. I remember thinking at the time that what you see depends on the way the light hits the painting.”

Augustine Early’s sarcasm is not only truly wicked but often wickedly funny, not least when interwoven with recollections of sexual triumphs paralleling his journalistic achievements – especially with an ambitious young woman who for gymnastic reasons he refers to as Spinning Jenny.

  Later in the play, Augustine smoothly seduces the widow of a powerful politician who killed himself when exposed in print by Augustine as a congenital peeping tom.

Was ever woman in this humour wooed? Was ever woman in this humour won? -- and so forth …like Richard III, yes, Mr. Noone?

“Yes.”

Yes?

“Yes!  Dostoevsky does the same thing in ‘Notes From the Underground.’  ” [Pause.]  “In playwriting in general, I’ve always been interested in malignancy.”

Ronan Noone, born Newry, Ireland, County Down, April 7, 1970, started free-lancing when at the University of Galway. It was “a time of not heavy employment” that brought him to America in 1994 “in search of color, scope, and opportunity.” He now lives in Weymouth, Mass., with his wife Jessica and their young daughter. “I get more of a patriot the longer I live here.”

If “The Atheist” represents Noone’s attempt to reach “into the American character and walk away from the Irish vernacular,” for Campbell Scott it is a venture, and an adventure, of a different sort.  

“I don’t do much theater these days, because I’ve got my son, Malcolm – who’s 10, going on 107 – every other week,” says film and TV star Scott. “And I’ve never done a one-man play before.”

How many words, do you suppose?

“Oh my God,” says Scott over the phone from his home in Connecticut. “All I know is it’s 90 minutes.”

The play reaches New York – as an Allan Buchman Culture Project – by way of Boston’s Huntington Theater and the Williamstown Theater Festival. What Scott has learned en route is that this portrait of “a charming monster” – ah there, Dick III – is “such a balancing act” between light and dark.

“The audience tells you the tone/ It’s a little like an athletic event.”

No, Campbell hasn’t known many newspapermen “except over the phone, like now, with you” – but Dad wanted to be a journalist for a while; he went to journalism school at the University of Missouri.”

Dad, case you didn’t know, dear reader, was George C. Scott. And Mom was beloved Colleen Dewhurst.

What would she have thought of this?

“Oh, she’d have loved it. It’s so theatrical, with a gut-punch at the end.”

And you can put that in 150 point Times Roman fond Bold.

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