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Fooling the Audience 

A light, elegant, and appropriately deceitful Earnest

Wednesday, Sep 1 2004
Andy Murray is an all-American-looking actor with a mischievous smile and a normally bald-shaved head. He's boisterous and rude. He's not effete. His defining role might be the flannel-wearing upstate handyman, Nat, who made wise remarks about helpless New Yorkers in Eric Bogosian's play Humpty Dumpty. Murray also wore flannel in the recent ACT revival of The Time of Your Life, as a regular named McCarthy at Nick's Pacific Street Saloon. So one of the pleasures of The Importance of Being Earnest at California Shakespeare Theater is to watch Murray mince around in a blue-tasseled fez as the sherry-sipping London aesthete Algernon Moncrieff.

"I really don't see anything romantic in proposing," Moncrieff says to his friend Jack ("Ernest") Worthing. "It is very romantic to be in love, but there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted."

Moncrieff wears a paisley robe over a pair of blue undershorts. He reclines on red Moroccan cushions in his London flat and banters with Worthing, played by Anthony Fusco as a starchy straight man in blazer, vest, and neckerchief. Moncrieff challenges Worthing with a few mysteries: Why would Worthing want to propose to Gwendolen, Moncrieff's cousin, when he seems to be flirting with a girl named Cecily? And why does Cecily believe his name is Jack, instead of Ernest?

"Come, old boy, you had much better have the thing out at once," warns Moncrieff.

"My dear Algy, you talk exactly as if you were a dentist," answers Worthing. "It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn't a dentist. It produces a false impression."

Jonathan Moscone has directed a light and elegant Earnest, with witticisms all in place -- perfect for a warm summer night in the Orinda hills, if only the weather would cooperate. Murray's Moncrieff is also jaunty and arch and very British, which becomes less surprising when you realize that Murray, in fact, is British: That all-American image turns out to be his most skillful performance. The exquisite reversal is perfect for a play like Earnest, which sends up a society where all impressions are false.

Oscar Wilde's most perfect play premiered in 1895 and made him a hero of the London stage. Four days later the Marquis of Queensberry denounced him as a sodomite, and within three months Wilde was sentenced to two years in prison for being the lover of Queensberry's son. Wilde, in other words, had lived the double life skewered in his play -- he'd known the hypocrisy of his age from the stifling inside -- and his flameout became a more spectacular drama than anything he'd written.

Moscone seems overaware of Wilde's legend. He pokes fun at it by raising a portrait of the author's face behind the stage in Act 3. That's hardly necessary, since every well-turned phrase is a pungent Wildeism, and all of Katherine Roth's costumes and Kate Edmunds' sets turn playfully on what we already expect from Earnest. (The sets grow progressively sparer, from Moncrieff's lavish Moroccan-accented flat in Act 1 to a country house evoked by a pink table and AstroTurf in Act 2 to a nearly bare stage in Act 3, backed by the portrait of Wilde.) But Moscone's knowingness is not a serious problem, which is to say it doesn't get in the way of strong acting by Fusco or Murray or any of the women -- Julie Eccles as Gwendolen, Susannah Schulman as Cecily, or Domenique Lozano as Moncrieff's formidable aunt, Lady Bracknell.

Lady Bracknell is a vision of death in her pale makeup and purplish lips. She's been trussed up in a gray dress, a feathered hat, and a veil. Her conventional opinions close like an iron gate on the marriages proposed by Moncrieff and Worthing, and Lozano plays her at a fine high pitch of Victorian rectitude. ("Never speak disrespectfully of society," she says to Moncrieff. "Only people who can't get into it do that.") Lozano may be too young to play a proper Lady Bracknell, but then Eccles and Schulman -- not to mention Fusco and Murray -- are too old for their roles. It doesn't matter. The whole cast knows how to act, down to Clive Worsley as both Moncrieff's butler, Lane, and Worthing's footman, Merriman. Worsley distinguishes the roles without disturbing the blandness proper to an English manservant.

"You are a perfect pessimist, Lane," says Moncrieff.

"I try to give satisfaction, sir."

The play is one long, clever deceit, and maybe the most infectious part of the show is the amount of fun the actors seem to have. They are, after all, professional liars, and they must enjoy fooling the audience at least as much as Wilde did.


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