There’s a famous Monty Python sketch in which philosophers play soccer: Greece vs. Germany, with Confucius as the referee. Don’t know it? Well, maybe it’s not that famous, but the sketch is beloved by anyone who studied philosophy and now spends Sunday afternoons shouting at the TV.
What, you say those people watching the other football players don’t exist? Meet Coach “Doc” Johnson—doctor of philosophy, doctor of physical education, and the central character in Atheist’s Paradise, Bill Goodman’s new play about a professor who doubles as the football coach at a small Midwestern Methodist college. A new president has just been installed, and now Doc, something of a controversial fixture on campus, is under pressure to spend more time trying to win a conference championship and less time talking his students into losing their faith.
Full disclosure: I studied philosophy as an undergraduate at a small Baptist college in Ohio, where I was a three-sport intramural jock. If any critic in this town was preordained to like this play, it’s me. And I did. But l also think that, not unlike a freshman writing a paper on Ludwig Wittgenstein, Atheist’s Paradise is trying very hard to say Very Deep Things. Also, I suspect Goodman faked his way through the football scenes.
Atheist’s Paradise is at its best when Doc (Nick Torres) is sitting behind his desk, consoling, counseling, or confounding freshmen who have stumbled into his office. Rebecca Phillips and Victor Maldonado are winsome as the two students he takes under his wings. Or tries to give wings to, as evidenced in an unnecessary metaphorical sideplot in which Doc offers his pupils flying lessons. Bob (Maldonado) is a suicidal smart-mouth cut from the football team who signs up for informal therapy. Sheila (Phillips) stops by to interview Doc for the student newspaper, and is determined to ferret out whether it’s absolutely true he has a talking pet rhinoceros named Gwendolyn. The existential repartee is witty without veering into cliché:
Sheila: Is there any connection between football and philosophy?
Doc: Sure. If a player fumbles, I threaten to doubt his existence.
Both students sign up for Doc’s Intro to Philosophy class, and their debates about absolute truth, Socrates, and swallowing the hemlock are charming and diverting; dialogue involving the new college president (Claude Stark) feels less genuine. Ditto the scenes that find Doc along the sideline: Football coaches generally spend more time hollering about wishbone offenses or whether to blitz instead of pacing while fretting over who to take out.
But the bigger-picture problem facing Atheist’s Paradise is that Goodman has buried a compelling story under competing metanarratives. As a framing device, the show opens with a cosmic justice court, featuring Jan Forbes in a long flowing robe talking like one those faux ancient Greeks from the original Star Trek. Throughout the play, The Judge eavesdrops on the action and offers commentary on eternal punishment that is apparently not a joke. The plot has a few holes, and it’s not clear who or what we’re supposed be rooting for, other than for Doc to continue his career as a beloved philosopher-jock. Ultimately, the stress of figuring out the meaning of life in the red zone might be a little too much for Doc, and for the Edge of the Universe Players, to pull off the big win.