'The Atheist'


Campbell Scott's eyes look piercingly at the audience, and his mouth is set in a thin, cynical smile. His voice takes on a purring softness, somewhere between seductive and malicious. He's playing Augustine Early, the journalist anti-hero of Ronan Noone's new one-man play, "The Atheist," and he is giving a striking performance.

Journalists have a dubious reputation in reality and literature. They tend to be viewed as callous pursuers of the grimmest stories: Men and women who will do anything to get a byline and, once it's gotten, celebrate by retiring to the nearest bar.

The central figure in Noone's biting drama is very much in that mold. But he also is the perfect man for these blatantly opportunistic times. Born into trailer-trash poverty somewhere in Kansas, Early pulls his streetwise self up by the proverbial canny bootstraps, talks his way into a newspaper gig and gains his 15 minutes by exposing the sexual voyeurism of a well-known politico.

Early is the journalist as soulless maverick. Trust in him and you're liable to see your story in defamatory headlines the next day.

Noone, an Irish dramatist who has taken up residence in the U.S., American citizenship and all, writes in a fluid style. "Atheist," which had an acclaimed run last year at the Williamstown Theater Festival, has a jazz-like feel. Telling the story of his life to a digital camera (for posterity), Early seems to meander from highlight to highlight.

But there is method to the wandering. This is a cautionary tale, though whether Noone's message is that viciousness does not pay, or that an opportunist always lives to scheme another day, is unclear. The play's ending is ambiguous.

What is not ambiguous is Scott's compelling performance. The lean, lanky star fashions a character that is attractive and repellent. Scott's Early is today's all-American bad boy: sexy, sly and, despite a few moments of fleeting repentance, completely amoral. (partialdiff)