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Early Edition

Date: Sep 29, 2008


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"The litmus test is if I can laugh at my own play," says playwright Ronan Noone, whose new play The Atheist starts performances at the Barrow Street Theatre on Oct. 7, starring Campbell Scott. "That's the lowest common denominator for the playwright—what is most fun to write."

Fun is not the reason he wrote The Atheist, a play about a corrupt, scandal-chasing newspaper reporter, but it is the reason the play takes the form it does.

"I started out with five or six characters, and it was becoming a 'well-made' play," Noone says. "But then I said, 'One voice seems to be more interesting than the others.' So I just let Augustine Early open his mouth and run away with it, and it became fun to write."

That portentously named lead, Augustine Early, is a compromised journalist, played by Scott, who begins the show talking into a video camera, as if setting the record straight or making "something to upload on YouTube," as Noone puts it. For the writer, giving his narrator's confessional a sense of confessional was crucial: "He has to be making this, and it has be in the now—that was very important to me. It couldn't just be, 'Once upon a time…' "

The conventions of storytelling have been on Noone's mind throughout his career, which began in Ireland with a renowened trilogy of plays set there, the so-called "Baile" trilogy: The Lepers of Baile Baste, Gigolo of Baile Breag and The Blowin of Baile Gall. Now a resident of Boston, Noone has begun to set his plays in the States, first with Brendan, about an Irish-American, and now with The Atheist.

Oddly, though he lives in Boston, he has thus far set his American plays in the relatively small town Blue Rapids, Kansas—mostly "as an iconic backdrop," Noone admits, comparing it to the way Brian Friel frequently revisited the fictional town of Ballybeg. "It gives a playwright focus."

Fresh linguistic and cultural idioms can also tighten a writer's focus, as Noone learned when he changed the character of Augustine from Irish to American.

"Writing him with the Irish vernacular, he was too voluble, like me—the play was 80 or 90 pages long," Noone notes. "Once I decided to put his character in the American vernacular, the sentences got tighter and contraction was happening all over the place. And one marvelous thing about American speech is your use of aphorisms—for instance, I can warble on all day to make a point where an American will just say something like, 'When the rubber meets the road.' "

Though Noone's Irish accent is still pronounced, when he returns to Ireland he's reminded how American he's become.

"I'm aware of myself over there when I hear certain American phrases comin' out of me, and my Irish friends eyes pop," Noone says. "I'll say, 'How you doin', guys?' No one says 'guys' over there."

On the other hand, he points out, "Culturally, it's like the 51st state, especially over the last 10 years, with all the wealth that's poured into the country, and the materialism that goes with that."

Does a prosperous, relatively peaceful Emerald Isle bode ill for the future of Irish storytelling—which, to put it mildly, has dramatized more than its share of misery and conflict? It turns out that mere physical improvements haven't necessarily brightened the Irish cultural climate or diluted its strong dramatic sense.

"I found myself getting deeper and darker when I was writing in the Irish mentality," Noone says. "I needed to pop out of that a bit—I needed a little more optimism. I got that sense of optimism writing about America."

This difference can be as simple as a picture, he says: "If you just look at photographs, you will see a smile on most Americans' faces. Now maybe it's a phony smile, but it's a smile nonetheless. You see pictures of Europeans, and—well, maybe it's because the teeth over there aren't so good, or it's just way we're brought up, but in pictures it's all thin lips, no smiles."

If you can judge some things from appearances, then we must ask: What can we infer from his new play's provocative title?

"I didn't think of it as throwing down a gauntlet, but that's how some have taken it," Noone says. "A few humanists have written to me who think they're being disparaged as immoral people by the title. I just thought this seemed like the right title for this kind of fella. If anything, I feel like he's searching for his soul."

This soul-searching doesn't take an overtly theological cast, though. Rather, it's based in part on Noone's own experiences as a cub reporter. He once wrote a feature about a man who'd attempted to sail singlehandedly from South Africa to England but had to be rescued midway. Sent to write a follow-up story some months later, Noone found the sailor welcoming fresh attention, as he wished to raise money for another voyage. But when Noone's coverage led instead to inquiries by British immigration authorities, the sailor blamed Noone for sinking him into a "quagmire."

"You want the news, and you want to be part of the story, but when it turns on you, you blame the journalist," Noone says. "Every aspect of publication or media has an upside and a downside to it, and people at certain stages forget where they stand—the interviewee just as much as interviewer."

Given the moral slipperiness of his lead character, the challenge for Noone was to make him watchable.

"The trick of the show for me was how to make somebody sympathetic who was completely dislikable," Noone says. "I don't think he gives a damn what anybody thinks of him, he's just saying, 'This is what happened, and if you don't like it, you can go to hell.' "

Lest we anticipate (or hope) that protagonist of The Atheist is a charming, seductive rogue, Noone says, "I've never seen him as charming. He's more off-putting, so I guess what I'm curious about is why I'm still watching him. His spin on life is so malignant that I become more and more interested in that malignancy."

And yet he had fun writing it?

"I like the contrarian attitude," Noone says.

Click here for more information about The Atheist.