It wasn’t long in Crispin Whittell’s slight semi-comic fantasy Darwin to Malibu (2003) that I started to fantasize about. Where’s Tom Stoppard now that Whittell needs him? What could our most literate, witty, and ironic playwright do with this dreamy philosophical mashup in which Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and Samuel Wilberforce meet today to continue their historical debate on evolution, the meaning of life and biblical faith? Dare I assume that the end product would possess depth, dizzying scholarship, and caustic insight. Food for Thought is a registered trademark of Stoppard. Whittell, although clever in his own way, only gives us the aperitif. Please, sir, I want more.
Everyone knows Darwin and his fundamentally upsetting About the origin of species. When his book was published in 1859, the world shifted on its axis and the natural sciences were never the same again. Huxley and Wilberforce are rarely discussed, although in their time they were the most prominent Victorians, regarded for their tenacity, intelligence, and strength of argument.
A biologist and arguably the first public “agnostic,” a word he coined, Huxley wholeheartedly preached Darwin’s theory of evolution. Known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” he debated Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, in a breathtaking 1860 clash between the Titans. The son of England’s best-known abolitionist, William Wilberforce, Samuel was a notoriously cunning debater, nicknamed “Soapy Sam” for his slippery ways around an argument. During the heated exchange, the two made some salient points and the verdict ended in a draw, but Darwin’s groundbreaking theories of man’s rise from the primordial seas permeated the known world. . Overnight, science evolved.
In a cheeky premise, Whittell places these three controversial, yet familiar, adversaries in a beach house in present-day Malibu, California. They realize they’re out of their element and out of time itself, but that’s part of the puzzle Whittell is trying to build. Darwin (David Harlan in snow white mustache ZZ Top) is content to watch the girls on the beach, browse horoscopes and read trashy softcore novels. Young Sarah (Mai Le) lives in the house, who serves him smoothies, bangs him and remembers “her boy”, an unrequited summer lover. It is a benign and gentle existence for this lion of science in its days of decline. Unexpectedly, Huxley (Joel Sandel) and Wilberforce (Rutherford Cravens) barge onto the porch and resume their debate. Wilberforce is there, he says, to convince Darwin to reclaim his lost faith. Huxley is there to counter Wilberforce, just like he did at the Natural History Museum in Oxford.
There are nimble digressions – the partridge shooting in the sky, Noah’s Ark, Sarah stealing the boy’s diary, the pregnancy of the Virgin Mary, the devastating losses every man (and Sarah) has suffered, Wilberforce living in Alabama because everyone agrees with it, a sweet twist of an ending – but Whittle doesn’t fit them neatly or easily into a cohesive whole. It shakes us: an outburst, a reverie, a non sequitur, a biblical lesson. It is a pleasant job, but one that does not call into question. The best line is at the very top. Darwin ogles the Californian girls on the beach. “Who needs evolution when doing plastic surgery? This joke remains unexplored.
Harlan is a laid back Darwin in his Hawaiian shirt and shorts, satisfied with his life of little pressure and little domestic pleasures. Its place in history guaranteed, a banana smoothie makes its day. It’s a delightful characterization, but in the second act it is relegated to the background as Huxley and Wilberforce grapple with it, picking up the scabs of their past history that doesn’t feel so past. You’re a Taurus, Sarah premonitiously tells Huxley, and Sandel sniffs and stamps his foot to deflect Wilberforce’s righteous fervor.
But this is Wilberforce’s piece. Whether Whittle throws it at him or director Rebecca Greene Udden subtly pushes the character to the fore, Cravens envelops Wilberforce with unwavering determination and quiet dignity. He shakes the room to wake him up. His conversion at the end of the play is abrupt and unconvincingly written, but Craven brings such underground life to Wilberforce as we believe. There are sides to this character that Whittle never sees. Cravens sees. The play, at the same time aerial, takes on an unexplored gravity and meaning. He is an actor at the height of his art. That’s a shame Malibu cannot meet his challenge.
Darwin in Malibu runs until October 24 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; and 3 p.m. on Sunday. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard. Customers will be required to wear masks and show their vaccination record or a negative COVID test (within 48 hours) before entering the theater. For more information, call 713-524-6706 or visit maintreettheater.com. $ 35 to $ 59.