“The Atheist” is the third and best of the three works by which Noone, born in Ireland but now a Massachusetts resident, has been represented on a New York stage in the course of the last couple of seasons.
Like the earlier plays, “The Blowin of Baile Gall” and “The Lepers of Baile Baiste.” “The Atheist” has been directed by the Boston-based David Sullivan with abundant skill and a keen sense of timing, which, in the case of a 90-minute monologue, is absolutely crucial.
Sullivan and, by extension, Square Peg Productions, which has produced Noone’s play, have been extremely fortunate in having the solitary speaker, Augustine Early, played by Chris Pine, a Californian making his New York stage debut with “The Atheist.”
Pine, scion of a Los Angeles film family who has appeared in such fare as “Princess Diaries 2,” bears a considerable resemblance to Brad Pitt, equipped, however, with a more powerful quotient of power-packed batteries. And he shows he can act, too.
The energy uptick comes in handy in keeping a lengthy solo show afloat and compelling for a full hour-and-a-half, but the lean, graceful Pine accomplished the feat without breaking a sweat. He is a genuine find; make no mistake about it.
Noone’s impressive new play practically demands comparison with the single-actor shows “Rum and Vodka,” “St. Nicholas” and the others, with which Conor McPherson built his early career. “The Atheist,” for the most part, stands up at least reasonably well alongside them.
The play, it must be noted, sags a bit toward the end, threatening to run out of gas before the playwright makes his final points. That this never quite happens is a real tribute to the skill director Sullivan and, especially, Pine, have brought to their assignments.
If a single criticism had to be aimed at the remarkable Pine, it would probably be that, in his attempt to keep his character alive and kicking, he mugs a bit more than absolutely necessary.
A little face-pulling, however, lies well within the behavior boundaries of the conflicted, self-conscious character Noone has created here.
Early, who begins and ends his story with an anecdote about a crow with “one eye closed,” began life in a small Kansas town Noone calls Blue Rapids, but “now,” as the playwright identifies the chronological placement of his story, the journalist is living in what appears to be a rented room of spectacular dreariness.
Richard Chambers’s intentionally gloomy set features mainly unused, unvisited areas, left and right, which appear to have been spray-painted in a dismal shade of greenish-gray, with a well-lighted central strip where the play’s action occurs.
The brightest spot is a hallway beyond an open door. That hall, viewed retrospectively, may be seen as a port of departure for life itself.
In the printed text of the play, playwright Noone quotes from Samuel Johnson’s “The Duty of the Journalist” to the effect that “the journalist indeed, however honest, will frequently deceive, because he will frequently be deceived himself.”
Augustine, before he begins to tell the audience his long and complicated story, comes through that brilliantly lighted doorway, shuts off the music that’s been playing and sits before a little camera mounted on a tripod, clearly recording his own image, for reasons which remain in the shadow until the play’s final moments.
Abandoning the taping, which at first appears to be a comedic and egotistic gesture, Early embarks upon his bizarre tale, taking his hearers into his confidence as though they were the oldest and closest of friends, an aspect of Pine’s performance which the actor accomplishes with conspicuous grace and ease.
As a comparatively inexperienced reporter, Augustine had been involved in a particularly dubious incident in which a young, undocumented Argentinean woman, named Melinda Peterson, had faced deportation, partly as a result of an article he’d written.
That Augustine is, at base, something of a loose cannon, or at least has the potential of becoming one, is indicated by a story he tells, early in the show, an incident in which, at age 12, he had burned to the ground or at least to its tires the trailer in which he lived with his mother.
Augustine’s personal downfall, if it can rightly be called that, began when the journalist became acquainted with a long-legged beauty named Jenny, who claimed to be an “Ophthalmologist,” but who, eventually, turned out merely to be the assistant to one.
“The Atheist” turns rather nasty when Augustine learns that the sexual activity in which he and Jenny have been engaging has been covertly photographed by the owner of the building in which the lovemaking has taken place.
Because the aforesaid owner turns out to be none other than the town’s mayor, Augustine finds himself with another hot newspaper story on his hands, one which eventually turns out to be thornier than he can comfortably handle.
Written by: Ronan Noone
Directed by: David Sullivan
Starring: Chris Pine
Where: Center Stage, 48 West 21st St., NYC
When: Through Dec. 23