Campbell Scott in The Atheist
(© T Charles Erickson)
Campbell Scott in The Atheist
(© T Charles Erickson)
If you see a better performance on a stage in New York City this year, it will have to surpass the extraordinary work by Campbell Scott in the one-person play The Atheist, a co-production of the Culture Project and Circle in the Square, now at the Barrow Street Theatre. His performance is so astounding that even if you couldn't hear the bright and brittle words written by talented playwright Ronan Noone, and all you had to go by was the actor's face, you'd still know exactly what emotions were cascading down from the stage to the audience.

Scott plays Augustine Early, the most amoral man you are likely to meet this side of a Neil LaBute play. He comes by his amorality by way of an epiphany regarding God, or rather the absence of God. He posits that if there is no God, then there is no soul, and therefore what's right is what's right for him. Not Him.

Augustine tells us his story, from childhood to literally the very end, while standing in front of a video camera, surrounded on the floor by piles of notebooks. These books are his diaries, capturing in his feverish note taking, every moment in his life of deception, lies, cheating, and backstabbing. Not all of these transgressions, he assures us, are his alone. No matter. What Augustine wants more than anything else in this world is fame. The play is all about how he manipulates everyone around him -- his mother, his girlfriend, a congressman, and a congressman's wife -- in order to reach his greatest desire.

In his quest for fame, Augustine became a journalist, using his ability to skew the truth to his own advantage. In this age of the Internet, when lies, half-truths, and smears multiply geometrically and get repeated by others without the slightest effort at fact-checking, it's easy to understand how unscrupulous journalists can manipulate the truth.

The show is directed with precision and immaculate detail by Justin Waldman. The simple yet provocative set is designed by Cristina Todesco; the lighting by Ben Stanton provides a highly theatrical effect; and the sound design by Alex Neumann is also subtle and deeply affecting. (The video projections, though uncredited, also add to the experience.)

But ultimately, The Athiest proves to be the perfect match of magnificent actor and gripping play. Don't miss it!