“I’m never drinking again.” These words, muttered at the beginning of “American Atheist,” by Jude Thomas (Gabriel DeLeon ’13) sound like something groaned by countless Yale students on Sunday mornings after a night at Toad’s Place. But Jude’s rude awakening does not mark the beginning of a long day of procrastination and regret, rather it shakes a world of disenchantment and rejection into life with a groan. The play, written by Rhys Bufford ’10, tells the story of a disaffected writer who finds himself in the middle of religious controversy after writing an incendiary blog post attacking evangelical Christianity. The production, however, which runs through Saturday, directed by Michael Rodriguez ’10, at times feels trapped in its own disillusionment, despite its occasional depictions of intimate personal awakening.
The play gets its driving force from a mob of angry Christian protestors, who place themselves outside Jude’s apartment after he questions the legitimacy of Jesus on the Internet. Various characters filter in and out of the apartment, each bringing his or her fair share of anger, resentment and discontent. Abigail Clark (Leslie Roberson ’11) even brings a joint or two.
Very obviously missing from the continual flow onstage is any deep consideration of the religion that lies apparently at the center of the action. And even those characters who represent religion in the most literal ways fail to bring a serious discussion of evangelical Christianity to the stage. Even Jesus (Jesse Haywood Kirkland ’12) jokes about religion, flippantly calling “basic cable” the word of God. Much like the tinny, recorded cries of the Christian protesters outside of Jude’s apartment, religion serves as a backdrop in this production, never fully present but always there. The characters’ refusal to confront religion is in itself an interesting presentation of the conflict between belief and unbelief but what could be a much stronger interplay between opposing ideals often feels shut down by the sheer cynicism of the play’s lead characters.
Because of the play’s unsatisfying treatment of religion, the stronger conflict of the plot is that of the anguished writer. The constant clash between Jude and his literary agent, Benjamin Rosen (Matt Bakal ’10), over Jude’s failure to produce anything for his next book evolves into a fascinating exploration of friendship and responsibility that is often the highlight of the scene. Jude and Ben are able to escape briefly their self-involved disillusionment to face their relationship with one another, providing a much-appreciated break in the bleak cynicism of the rest of the play.
The performances in the production are, on the whole, strong; the actors, though, sometimes feel stuck behind their characters. The best acting moments are therefore found in the play’s monologues and private moments and the dialogue sometimes feels disjointed and competitive as the strength of each of the characters forces itself onto the scene. DeLeon and Bakal both have very strong performances, emphasized through their continual conflict over Jude’s Devil-may-care attitude towards his life.
At times, American Atheist presents its audience with moments of apparent personal revelation but then pulls back just at the last instance, leaving viewers wishing for more. The distinct moments when characters are able to peel back the thick layer of disenchantment surrounding the play, however, offer an intimate look at the redeeming and damaging roles of unbelief in a devout community. These special scenes make “American Atheist” a fascinating exploration of religion in modern America, for better or for worse.