Darwin in Malibu” delivers more than it initially promises, but never completely satisfies. In its American debut at Burbank’s Falcon Theater, director Casey Stangl makes the most of the flawed script’s subversive intelligence in a smartly paced, well-designed production marred by that Achilles’ heel of Los Angeles theater: lousy British accents.
At first, Kenya-born playwright Crispin Whittell’s four-character comedy seems as slight as its too-cute title. Evolution theorist Charles Darwin (Robert Foxworth), comfortably ensconced in the hereafter — a Malibu beach house, complete with a resident cutie named Sarah (Rebecca Brooksher) who makes him banana shakes and fetches his L.A. Times — muses on his circumstances like a retired college professor gone to seed. “Who needs evolution when you have plastic surgery?” he asks, staring (presumably) at a beach full of babes.
Thankfully, the dialogue improves when visitors arrive.
First we meet Thomas Huxley (Granville Van Dusen), an eminent British scientist and contemporary of Darwin’s, now best remembered for vigorously defending his friend’s controversial theories of evolution in an 1860 debate with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, a famous religious speaker.
Then Wilberforce shows up, and the fun begins. The lively evolution-creation dialectic includes a hilarious debate about partridge-hunting in heaven, and whether the birds being hunted reside in partridge paradise or somewhere less pleasant.
It’s here in the play’s second act that Whittell finally breaks away from cuteness and forces his characters to discuss the big questions about where we came from and what happens after we die. Surprisingly, though Darwin and Huxley skate effortless intellectual rings around the bishop and his smug tautologies, the Christian viewpoint scores late in the play when Wilberforce persuades Huxley to confront his tragic past.
Besides the existential-sitcom quality of the first act, there are other problems with both script and production. Darwin is underdeveloped — he’s a self-satisfied observer rather than a debater — and Foxworth gives us little subtext, though on the surface, it’s a charming portrayal.
As Wilberforce, Brill is hamstrung by an unconvincing accent. Sarah remains a cipher, though clearly Whittell wants to draw connections between her and Darwin’s long-dead daughter, Anne.
Perhaps there’s a more deeply philosophical play buried within this script, better attuned to Keith E. Mitchell’s dreamy and well-observed set and Robert Arturo Ramirez’s moody sound design of crying seagulls, wind and surf. As it stands, “Darwin in Malibu” is an excuse for a debate on Darwin’s theories — fascinating and newly timely, but theatrically threadbare.