The atheist Augustine Early (Eric Lucas), a poor boy from Kansas, discovered at an early age the liberating force of deciding that there is no God. So he burns down his trailer in order to give himself and his mom better Section 8 housing. As an adult, he blows in a heroic foreigner, who has overstayed her visa, to get a big scoop as a freelance journalist, blackmails the local Congressman over a sex tape the Congressman has secretly made of Augustine’s girlfriend, slants a story he is doing about a rape trial (by disparaging the accuser’s appearance) to help his friend, the defendant, releases the sex tape over the Internet in the hope of encouraging interest in his girlfriend’s acting career, and so on.
What a bad boy Augustine is!
The problem is that it is almost impossible to believe anything in Ronan Noone’s meandering story, including, as Mary McCarthy said about Lillian Hellman, the “and” and the “the”. It is highly unlikely that the 12-year-old Augustine’s clumsy arson (done with Molotov cocktails) would have been undiscovered. Had the heroic foreigner been found to have overstayed her visa she could get it renewed, or, if she was forced to return home (to Argentina) it would be a story of very little interest. It is the play’s preposterous coincidence that the peeping Congressman not only happens to be Augustine”s girlfriend’s landlord but to own the very newspaper at which Augustine wishes to be a regular reporter. Even if the cowed and blackmailed Congressman managed to compel the paper to hire Augustine, however, he would not have compelled it to print Augustine’s rape-trial drivel about the accuser’s bad makeup or shabby dress. Even if the paper did print Augustine’s reporting, there is not a jury in the world which would have been moved to acquit the defendant because of it. It is not a good career move for an actor to have a video of herself masturbating in the bathtub released on the Internet. Where she is already a minor celebrity with a tarnished reputation, like Pamela Anderson or Paris Hilton, it adds to the notoriety a little, but where she is an ophthalmologist’s secretary, as Augustine’s girlfriend is, its half-life will be one news cycle.
On and on the story goes, growing more convoluted, as Augustine has an affair with the Congressman’s virginal (and quite, um, mature) wife; as Augustine’s enemy, Dog-tooth the editor, runs for Congress; as we see sensational revelations caused and chronicled by Augustine. Augustine is, in fact, both story and storyteller to a degree which would embarrass even Geraldo Rivera, and it is inconceivable that his journalistic ethics (as well as his veracity and his sanity) would not be called into question. About midway into this narrative it seems like we have fallen into a weird dream-world where the only people who exist are Augustine and his characters, and that Augustine has somehow acquired the power to bring about any result he wishes, simply by selecting the proper bad act. In short, the Atheist has become godlike.
Lucas narrates all this in a pleasant, generally reasonable tone occasionally punctuated by angry outbursts. He sits behind a desk in what appears to be a modestly-furnished home, occasionally banging on an ancient typewriter and sipping whiskey while a video camera records. Once in a while he will stand up, or pace, or lean casually against the desk. He has given Augustine a sort of lazy mouth, so that you have to concentrate to catch all the words. He will occasionally take on the voice of the girlfriend, or Dog-tooth the editor, or the Congressman. This is a hard thing to do, and I’m sorry to report that Lucas does not achieve much distinction between his characters. He does not make Augustine’s narrative credible, but I’m not sure Derek Jacobi could make Augustine’s narrative credible.
Noone draws his play to a climax by describing how Augustine lost his faith, and how Augustine intends to resolve his present dilemma. These are sad stories – the former faintly ridiculous as well – but they would be a lot sadder if Augustine (and every other character in the narrative) wasn’t such a rotter, and if the rest of his narrative wasn’t so preposterous. Noone, an Irishman now living in Boston, has previously written some beautiful plays set in his native land. Judging from The Atheist, though, he has not yet come to learn the ways of Kansas.
By Ronan Noone
Directed by Kerry Waters Lucas
Produced by Keegan Theatre’s New Island Project
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
The Atheist, which plays in repertory with Keegan’s Gdirl from Gdansk, closes March 7, 2010.
For details, directions and tickets, click here.