Film / Theater

Two of a Kind: Ronan Noone’s The Atheist and Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole

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Review by Lucas Miller.

Williamstown Theatre Festival
Directed by Justin Waldman, with Campbell Scott/
DVD Criterion Collection

It is hardly surprising that Justin Waldman’s production of Ronan Noone’s The Atheist is already being hailed as the best play of the Williamstown Theatre Festival so early in the season. In form, it is a dramatic monologue. The audience listens to the stereotypically amoral and inconsiderate American journalist Augustine Early talk about his rise to disreputable fame, after tainting the lives of so many (though, ironically, he seems to have an unfortunate case of the Midas Touch, making his victims more famous than himself).

The acting is superb, as is the script. These two components are of course essential to any play’s success, but are of even more vital importance in a dramatic monologue as it is very easy to lose the audience’s interest with only one character. And good acting depends so heavily upon the quality of writing, as does the audience’s interest.

Campbell Scott, who plays our antihero Augustine Early, is now on his fourth season with the Williamstown Theatre Festival. He is confident and makes great use of the space provided. It is easy for the actor in a dramatic monologue to be inhibited by the lack of space and overact in order to compensate. Instead, Scott handles the movements with a facility that makes the production all the more exciting and natural.

Of course, it is a frightful amount of work to memorise an hour-and-an-half of constant speech. But Scott has an extraordinary command not only of text, but of tone and movement as well, which was very impressive indeed. Also, the rural-hick-turned-urban-middle-westerner accent was well-developed. Scott is a natural for the part.

The script is a great one. Noone explores the cliché of the selfish journalist and produces a unique study of humanity. The audience’s feelings for Augustine are of an ambivalent nature. Of course it is narrated by the Augustine himself, but this does not prevent the audience from labeling him as a singularly horrid person. Yet one cannot hold back a certain admiration of his methodical cunning and general disregard of others. Augustine is honest. He recognises the fact that he is terrible, but to him fame is all that matters. At several points in his narrative, Augustine falters as if to show some sort of humanity – but, alas, there is none to be shown.

The commendable acting and script are reinforced by the ambitious use of technical effects done by set designer Christina Tedesco. Between each chapter of the monologue, images from the video camera Augustine uses to record his story are projected onto a large screen behind the stage. This visual addition was not a terribly necessary expense on the production’s budget, but it was nonetheless engaging.

Noone does not give any of the expected trite morals to The Atheist. Its purpose is not to discredit atheism or to exalt any form of religion. It is simply what it is, as the opening anecdote of a one-eyed crow suggests – a gripping character study and a thoroughly amusing story. The Atheist is the must see hit of this festival season.

Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole
Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole

The Atheist has much in common with Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) starring Kirk Douglas. Both damningly convey the selfish consumerism of the American media and public. Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) plays a journalist caught up in the dream of fame. When he gets the exclusive scoop on Leo, an amateur archaeologist trapped within an old Indian cave, he decides to keep the fellow under ground for as long as possible and bribe the sheriff into withholding information from other reporters, thus giving him a week of headlines and recognition.

Ace in the Hole is packed with witty little touches which combine black humour with a meaningful critique on American materialism. As the days progress, more and more citizens capitalise off of Leo’s misfortune. Immediately, the local store starts charging an admission of twenty-five cents (which soon graduates to one dollar) and the circus moves in, attracting hordes of horrid consumers from every state.

Kirk Douglas’ acting is at its best as Chuck Tatum. His character’s amorality and unhealthy lust for success are brought out to undisguised perfection. Douglas is great, as he happily admits, at playing the “son of a bitch.”

Tatum and Early are among the most relevant characters ever created for the purposes of entertainment and critique. The two characters share the same contemptible career and ambitions, but the former is maybe less wretched than the latter (although his actions amount to a worse crime) for he has a more recognisable conscience.

Ace in the Hole and The Atheist make good companions for one another. Assuredly, the rebirth of Tatum over half a century onwards in The Atheist reveals something about the continuing presence of soulless American consumerism, and its relation with the media now as then.

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