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Darwin In Malibu

Which is really the sin here? Doubt? Or faith? --- Huxley

Life as a beach may be a sly elegy for the afterlife of evolutionist Charles Darwin, whose book The Origin of Species is debated to this day. In its exemplary American premiere at The Falcon Theatre, Crispin Whittell's comedy of ideas poses many questions and lets the answers twist in the wind that comes down with the final curtain.

In this witty and creative play, the afterlife is Malibu, not to be confused with Heaven. Bishop Samuel Wilberforce comes there to convert Charles Darwin, who is happily spending his afterlife birdwatching from a Malibu deck, tended by a beautiful teen-ager, Sarah. Another visitor is Thomas Huxley, who took Darwin's side in the famous debate with Wilberforce at Oxford in 1860.

Wilberforce's urgent sincerity is parried by Huxley with sophisticated charm. At first Whittel's script appears to be a one-sided debate in which he has no trouble at all debunking the more incredible Bible stories. Darwin tells Wilberforce he's doubtful he wants to go to heaven because he likes to shoot partridges. Wilberforce proposes a typically arcane religious argument that he can shoot partridges in heaven because bad partridges will be sent there. It may be their hell.

Wilberforce fares no better with Huxley who gleefully points out that Noah's ark, if it contained two of every species, would total 16,000 animals tended by the eight members of Noah's family, which would allow them 7.2 seconds per animal per caretaker per day. Darwin cuts through this argument, saying it is the consciousness of death that marks man out from other animals. Whittell's play demonstrates that it's also the refinement of words.

Darwin speaks of the beauty of Biblical mythology. Huxley claims the same epiphany for a fuck-a-chapter sandbuster contemporary novel he's been reading in which the final line, "I think of us and how we started," can be compared to Darwin's allegorical analogy. Wilberforce engages Huxley in a question-and-answer duel of strip poker whose goal is to force Huxley to admit the guilt he feels over his daughter's death in an insane asylum.

Not all the concepts work Darwin and Sarah's dialogue about the virginity of the Virgin Mary doesn't lead to anything and Sarah herself is a problematic character. However, she certainly adds eye candy to what would otherwise be an academic, if witty, dialogue and her first scene monologue about imagining her boy's adultery in Bakersfield is hilarious. Sarah and Darwin seem to be in each other's afterlives to console one another but Malibu is Sarah's reality, where her boy still plays his guitar to her every night on the beach. She makes the sorrow of death very real and poignant. Though none of the characters have forgotten the losses of their beloved wives or daughters, it's Sarah's death and loss which is recent and concrete.

Though Wilberforce acknowledges the life of ideas and our need to make sense of things, he's still frightened of an unstructured hereafter and the play ends with Darwin's assertion that we're all part of the wonder of creation, whether it occurred in the Biblical seven days or the millenniums of evolution.

The excellent cast is headed by Robert Foxworth whose Darwin is laid-back but strong, unostentatiously but unquestionably a leader. Granville Van Dusen is a joy as the sophisticated imperative Huxley who has never gotten over the loss of his daughter. Director Casey Stangl has cast Wilberforce as a very young bishop, in the appealingly gawky person of Corey Brill, which effectively balances the cast. Rebecca Brashear's Sarah is a typical surfer girl, which works.

Stangl finds the beats in Whittell's play and steers it on a smooth effective course, not an easy task with different ideas and arguments constantly popping up. Keith E. Mitchell has designed a mellow Malibu pad, complete with deck, banana shakes, windchimes and paperback books.

"She saw things differently -- or perhaps she saw different things," muses Huxley of his deranged daughter Maddy. That encapsulates the concept of this delicious comedy of ideas very well.

Playwright: Crispin Whittell
Director: Casey Stangl
Cast: Corey Brill (Wilberforce), Rebecca Brooksher (Sarah), Robert Foxworth (Darwin), Granville Van Dusen (Thomas Huxley)
Set Design: Keith E. Mitchell
Lighting Design: Jeremy Pivnick
Costume Design: Denitsa Bliznakova
Sound Design: Robert Arturo Ramirez
Prop Design: Andrew Robert Theis
Running Time: Two hours with one intermission
Running Dates: April 26-May 21, 2006
Where:. The Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank, Reservations: (818) 955-8101.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on May 5.
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