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A CurtainUp Review
The Atheist

Heart is a fucker. When it controls you.— Augustine Early

Chris Pine
Chris Pine (Photo: Carold Rosegg)
One might suspect from title alone that playwright Ronan Noone's new play, The Atheist, is his own private War Against Christmas. That would be wide of the mark. Recalling Will Eno's dazzling Thom Pain, actor Chris Pine here assays the role of Augustine Early. Clearly, his surname itself recalls St. Augustine whose treatise Confessions was a spiritual biography contending with man's innate weakness, contrasted with God's essentialist perfection.

A second text that seems part of the scaffolding here is Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and The Murderer. Malcolm's non-fiction novel arose from a libel case between convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald and his biographer Joel McGinness, who first befriended and then vilified his subject. Malcolm couldn't help but pass judgment not only on McGinness's ethics, but that of his entire profession. She memorably pronounced that a journalist is a "kind of a con man."

A spare bedroom, attached to what appears to be Section 8 housing, is the play's physical universe. Bed for sleeping, closet for wardrobe, desk for writing, and videocam forů confession. We're not told why, but Early is "coming clean." This is the story of his rise and spectacular flameout. It is a tale about the pursuit not of happiness, but of avarice.

For the evening to work, and it does, actor Chris Pine must command. He is a churl, but with considerable charm. The type you could admire from afar, but wouldn't trust to deliver a letter, much less trust with your life. By his own admission, Early's star was born when he managed to marry his facility for guile with a talent for letters. And voila— he emerges a celebrated journalist at the local paper, The Tribune, by exploiting a news angle for a frontpage exclusive. Early maps the trajectory of his ascent by leveraging the players in his life: his mother, the newspaper's editor, a girlfriend who herself aspires to fame, a mayor with a peculiar fetish. All are human chess pieces, and the consequences of his actions don't seem to ruffle the young man's feathers. For a time.

There have been a handful of plagiarists unmasked this year, from Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan to memoirist James Frey. But this tale is less about fudging the facts than the manipulation of the fame factory itself. What is already an intriguing monologue becomes in the hands of Chris Pine a thrilling ride. In the age of insta-celebrity and of YouTube where Macacas and LAPD are exposed for their brutality, The Atheist is not to be condemned, but savored.

The theater critic from Variety found the events in the play to beggar belief. Where was he in the week where Litvinenko, an ex-Russian spy, was poisoned to death, possibly by Putin himself—when a leaked White House memo forced the Prime Minister of Iraq to cancel a meeting with the President who laughed behind his back? What is disarming here is the revelation of a man with a worldview so corrosive and cynical that he would sacrifice his own happiness for a whiff of success. And to what extent is this a national epidemic?

Links to Other Plays by Ronald Noone:
The Blowin of Baile Gall/
The Lepers of Baile Baste

The Atheist
A Square Peg Production
Director: David Sullivan
Playwright: Ronan Noone
Cast: Chris Pine
Scenic Design: Richard Chambers
Costume Design: Jennifer Caprio
Lighting Design: Stephen Boulmetis
Original Music: Haddon Kime

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes, no intermission
Center Stage, 48 West 21 Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues,
From 11/24/06 to 12/23/06; opening 11/29/06.
Tuesday toSaturday at 8pm; Sunday at 3pm.
Tickets: $45 (212) 868-0444
Reviewed by Jerry Weinstein based on a November 28th performance.
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