As the star of Ronan Noone’s solo play “The Atheist,” Chris Pine accomplishes the Olympian task of making an utter bastard engaging. Noone has made Pine’s character — an unscrupulous reporter named Augustine Early — so hyperbolically malicious that he may as well tie damsels to train tracks. But the thesp counteracts the cartoonish writing with a perf containing the shades of genuine feeling that the play itself is unable to muster.
With a supply of conspiratorial winks and vivacious hand gestures, Pine sells his character’s story like a car dealer sells a lemon. That’s appropriate, since Early’s not a model we would be eager to take home. Recounting his rise to journalistic power, he describes manipulating or shaming everyone in his life into helping him advance. And now, for reasons that become clear late in the play, he’s trying to convince us he’s still a decent guy — despite having been responsible for selling sex tapes of his girlfriend, getting a rapist acquitted and causing a man to kill himself.
This production would collapse if Pine couldn’t demonstrate Early’s viperish charm. But he masters the swaggering arrogance that lets some people seem so alive. Pine energizes Early through the character’s own misdeeds, layering his perf with gestures that say he’s shocked by how much he has pulled off. And after a small chuckle or disbelieving hand to the forehead, he turns to acknowledge the audience, as though granting us the privilege to respond to what we have heard.
Thesp’s inviting energy, however, contradicts the script, which is designed to deliver a stern moral. Early’s treacheries are so grandiose and so numerous that we are almost required to read him as a symbol. It’s no accident, either, that he’s a newsman, or that he discusses Oprah and Howard Stern. Early represents every wicked impulse Noone apparently believes gets rewarded in our soulless, media-controlled society.
But Noone’s point would be more convincing were it more plausibly made. While seducing his girlfriend, for instance, Early manages to write a story in a major paper about her dreams to be an actress. Lesson: Lust for fame corrupts, and journalists manipulate the press for their own ends. But which paper would run a story about a woman who wants to act? That stopped being news the moment buses started arriving in New York.
Elsewhere, Early’s editor somehow overlooks a biased, untrue feature Early writes about a rape victim. The boss only blows up at his reporter after the morning edition hits the stands. But while the salacious feature certainly forwards the play’s plot and lets Early seem that much more evil, it defies logic that an editor would be so haphazard.
Rather than build his media critique on at least semi-believable events — the way, say, Paddy Chayevsky does in “Network” — Noone creates a world convenient to his purposes. That only makes him a lazy thinker.
As does the scribe’s use of women as symbols. There are three women in this story, and they fill the stereotypical roles of mother, virgin and whore. In his convoluted conclusion, Noone essentially blames them for Early’s problems, implying that if he had a better mommy (or mommy surrogate), our antihero might have been less evil.
That’s a head-scratcher, since Noone also throws another jab at the media into his final scene. Maybe if the women were also in charge of the papers, this pile-up of blame could be sorted out.