Scandal-mongering reporter Augustine Early is an opportunistic parasite who'll do whatever it takes to get the scoop on a front page story—even if it means manufacturing the story himself. He's amoral, vindictive, and seemingly devoid of compassion. He's also, as it happens, a lot of fun to spend a couple hours with. In Ronan Noone's briskly entertaining one-man play The Atheist, the charismatic Campbell Scott brings a rakish charm and incisive wit to a role that, in the wrong hands, might have been simply repellent.
While Early is an atheist—declaring that he can't believe in God and do the things he does—the play has little to do with religion, at least on the surface. The engrossing tale is told by Early as an elaborate self-defense of his reporting on the story that made and broke his career. Without giving away too much, the key players are a fame-hungry actress, a perverted local congressman, his pious wife, and Early's unquenchable ambition. If you've seen the classic Billy Wilder movie Ace in the Hole, you'll recognize Early as a direct descendant of Kirk Douglas's slimy "journalist." But that familiarity doesn't make The Atheist any less fun.
This isn't the kind of one man show in which the performer radically transforms himself into various characters; as Scott tells Early's story, he deftly suggests the other participants with just a slight vocal change or affected gesture. It's the way Early would probably tell it over a few drinks, with his subtle impersonations growing increasingly bilious as the sordid affair unfolds. Roaming the small stage with its inexplicably ugly backdrop, Scott is as brilliant and incisive as ever. You end up liking Early despite his reprehensible actions, and Scott's performance brings indispensable depth to Noone's rather quaint morality play.
The Atheist continues at The Barrow Street Theater through January 4th. Presented by The Culture Project, it's being staged in repertory with In Conflict.