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High Noone

In two plays at the Huntington, the Irish-born writer turns to America

Justin Waldman sounds a bit incredulous, if delighted, as he contemplates the fall season at the Huntington Theatre Company. With good reason: Waldman, the Huntington's artistic associate, will be directing not one but two plays this fall, both by the award-winning Boston playwright Ronan Noone.

"It's a little Ronan Noone festival," Waldman says with a laugh. "It's kismet, I think."

Noone himself has a different word for the happy coincidence of seeing both "Brendan" and "The Atheist" on the same fall schedule: "It's my Xanax," he says - the ideal cure for any anxiety he may have felt after finishing the trilogy of Irish plays that put him on the theater map.

Mostly, though, it's the luck of timing that brings these plays together. "Brendan" was already scheduled when the actor Campbell Scott, who had been eager to return in "The Atheist" after performing a reading of it at the Huntington's "Breaking Ground" festival, called to say he had a window in his fall schedule. So the Huntington's Wimberly Theatre will have "The Atheist," Wednesday through Sept. 30, and "Brendan" from Oct. 12 through Nov. 17.

"It made more sense to do them on top of each other than spread out," Waldman says. "But they're such disparate plays. If you didn't have the title page, you would never guess that they're by the same guy. But they do have the same smarts."

"Brendan" came first, as a kind of transition from the Irish characters and settings of Noone's "Baile" trilogy, which he completed after immigrating to the United States in the 1990s. Like the playwright himself, Brendan is an Irish immigrant who finds himself both enchanted and disoriented by the country of which he's now a citizen. Noone wrote an earlier version, called "Smiler Becoming Yank," during a stint as a Huntington playwriting fellow.

"It was a beautiful play but also kind of a chaotic mess at the time," says Waldman, who cast that version's staging. It featured many more characters, all with their own story arcs.

As it has evolved through Noone's and Waldman's collaboration, the play has become more focused on Brendan's own story, particularly on the complexity of his ties to the family he's left behind. A key character is Brendan's mother, who's onstage in most scenes even though he's in America and she's in Ireland - or would be, if she hadn't died shortly before the play begins.

"Brendan" is, in some ways, Noone's way of coming to terms with that kind of haunting.

"I always had a grandparent in my mind, you know, a conservative Irish grandparent," he says. "I'd start to write something and I'd think, 'Oh, they would shoot me if they ever went to the theater.' It was liberating to come here. I thought, 'I don't think they'll ever see this!' "

That liberation comes across in "The Atheist," a viciously funny one-man show about Augustine Early, an amoral reporter who'll do anything for a story. Interestingly, in the first draft Augustine was Irish; now he's American.

"When you speak American, you just say what you have to say and then quit," Noone says. "When I wrote it originally, he was an Irish character, and it was 85 pages long. Then I made him American, and boom - it was 58 pages!"

"The Atheist" has already been staged in London and New York, but Noone and Waldman are particularly eager to see Scott's interpretation here. They'll all be at the actor's Connecticut home this week to rehearse it.

"In his movie roles, he has that certain kind of malice," Noone says of Scott, "and yet at the same time you think maybe you can save this guy. He can make them laugh. And I liked it that, when I asked him why he wanted to do it, he said, ' 'Cause this is going to be fun.' "

Louise Kennedy can be reached at

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