It’s a pity the title “The Misanthrope” is taken. “The Atheist,” Irish-born American playwright Ronan Noone’s creepily compelling portrait of an avaricious journalist, just wouldn’t be the same without the hate. Noone’s yarn gets better and better as it rockets along, especially with Campbell Scott to give the title character a well-placed jolt or two. As Augustine Early, a newspaper reporter swallowed whole by ambition, Scott has enough hypnotic charisma for about five actors, keeping the aud enthralled by Early’s smooth-voiced, friendly facade and occasionally letting his barely controlled rage smash it to bits.
Scott’s expression is squarely at odds with his tone of voice through most of the play — he looks out wide-eyed from under his perpetually furrowed brow, occasionally smiling nervously but always keeping up the same carefully modulated patter and generally giving the impression he’s stolen his expensive suit and is about to get caught. He’ll flick his wrist gently or take a step or two, but mostly he seems like a man trying much too hard to look normal, to look like he’s just shooting the breeze.
That is the first of the play’s many wonderful, filthy lies, of course. Early is a five-star sleaze with a long rap sheet of dirty, if usually legal, dealings. From his swinish behavior to his girlfriends to his toadlike conduct at work, Early lives for himself, and only himself.
As a journalist, he’s devoted to getting the tawdriest dirt in the least ethical way, regardless of who’s in his path. For Early’s many chumps, the truth sets you free in the same way that pirates making you walk the plank set you free. Early is most upbeat when lording it over some poor slob, but when he’s genuinely happy, he doesn’t know what to do.
That’s where Noone separates Early from the vast legions of 2-D thugs and losers who are simply mean and petty: Early is, in fact, human. At one point, after undertaking the first and least objectionable phase in his plan to help his girlfriend become an actress, he genuinely pleases her and it trips him up, even in memory.
“It’s nice to make someone happy,” he says, a little baffled.
Mostly, however, Early concentrates on making himself happy, and “The Atheist” is the story of his utter, spectacular failure to do so. His schemes are unconventional, he reasons, so they should serve him better than all those other guys, none of whom are as ambitious and driven as he is. And they do include some humdingers: the arson swindle that gets him an apartment, the misadventures in voyeur porn, the blackmail — all workings of a brain that should be washed out with soap.
It’s to the credit of Scott and director Justin Waldman, who bring the show back to New York after a one-night-only engagement in May, that the production never goes overboard. There’s no Snidely Whiplash moustache-twirling, no cackling and rubbing of the hands, all of which would look appropriate on Early.
Instead, Scott delivershis strange confession like he’s doing a video standup or recording a radio segment. More than anything, Early looks like he’s reporting a hard-hitting expose, and surprising the aud and himself with what he finds.