Make It Hurt So Good

The Atheist , a solo show written by Irish playwright Roonan Noone, and starring the charismatic Campbell Scott (recently of ABC's Six Degrees ) is the Culture Project's and Circle in the Square Theatre's latest engaging and precocious brainchild, currently running at the Barrow Street Theater. The character of Augustine Early -- a newspaper reporter of Machiavellian sensibilities and a Midwestern trailer park upbringing -- is inhabited so gleefully (and with no little charm) by Campbell Scott that he manages to securely carry the audience over narrative waters that occasionally strain credibility.

Augustine cites his lack of faith in God (and the two broken legs that resulted from an early attempt to fly off of his childhood trailer) as almost a corollary to his rabid ambition. Possessed early on with an appetite for fame, he sets out already willing to walk over bodies to secure headlines (of appropriate size and font) on the front page of the newspaper.

His first slippery steps involve injecting some leading adjectives into his coverage of a rape trial. The heady rush that Augustine embodies physically upon seeing how much history depends on who is telling the story is akin to watching an addict prepare for an even stronger hit. Scott’s skill is most evident in passages like this one, as he somehow manages to present a unlikable personage as a man merely invested in presenting a sort of undeniable human logic.

The next chapters of Augustine’s sordid career involve athletic sex with an aspiring actress and a starring role in pornographic videos filmed via a tiny camera planted in her bathroom by non-other than the Governor himself. While this set-up can stretch the limits of believable convenience, it seems a natural “Aw Shucks” moment in Scott's hands as he recounts Augustine's rise to power.

And the carnage continues with blackmail of the governor, which leads to a full-time job on the paper, and internet leakage of a revealing video from the governor's private collection which ultimately aids the career of Augustine's girlfriend, the actress pejoratively known as Jenny the Jugs. (Women in this piece, and Augustine's view, seem far more one-dimensional than the men).

If all of this sets the stage for a grand-slam expose on the Governor, it also eventually leaves the governor's seemingly innocent wife open and vulnerable to succumbing to the charms of Augustine himself. Or is it the other way around?

Obviously the media's role in cultural presentation is lambasted here, and there is considerable play on the notions of victim and victimizer and image and the image creator/journalist. Perhaps that is what is signified by the film noir backdrop (created by set designer Cristina Todesco) to which the show defaults at alternating moments. It gives Augustine's image a greater life than his own for a few moments, perhaps in a sort of Plato's cave allegory.

Most of all it's fun to watch a good actor be verbally dexterous and relish playing a villain whom he presents as a man with a mission who simply lost his way. In short, The Atheist , offers an entertaining evening for journalism junkies and theatergoers alike, and represents a real acting achievement for Mr. Scott.

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