Everyone knows Darwin and his fundamentally earth-shaking On the Origin of Species. When his book was published in 1859, the world shifted on its axis and natural science was never the same again. Huxley and Wilberforce are rarely discussed anymore, though in their day they were most eminent Victorians, regarded for their tenacity, intelligence, and force of argument.
Biologist and no doubt the first public “agnostic,” a word he created, Huxley wholeheartedly preached Darwin's theory of evolution. Known as “Darwin's Bulldog,” he debated Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, in a breathlessly reported 1860 clash of the titans. Son of England's most noted abolitionist William Wilberforce, Samuel was a notoriously wily debater, nicknamed “Soapy Sam” for his slippery ways around an argument. During the heated exchange both men made salient points, and the verdict concluded in a draw, but Darwin's revolutionary theories on man's rise from the primordial seas permeated the known world. Overnight, science evolved.
In a cheeky premise, Whittell places these three contentious, 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 attempts to construct. Darwin (David Harlan in snow white ZZ Top whiskers) is content to watch the girls on the beach, peruse horoscopes, and read trashy softcore novels. Living in the house is young Sarah (Mai Le), who serves him smoothies, gets him stoned, and reminisces about “her boy,” an unrequited lover from the summer. It's a benign and soft existence for this lion of science in his waning days. Unexpectedly, both Huxley (Joel Sandel) and Wilberforce (Rutherford Cravens) barge onto the porch and begin their debate anew. Wilberforce is there, he declares, to convince Darwin to reclaim his lost faith. Huxley is there to counter Wilberforce, just as he had at Oxford's Natural History Museum.
There are nimble digressions – partridge shooting in heaven, Noah's ark, Sarah stealing the boy's diary, virgin Mary's pregnancy, the devastating losses each man (and Sarah) has suffered, Wilberforce living in Alabama because everyone there agrees with him, a soft twist of an ending – but Whittle doesn't fit them neatly or easily into a coherent whole. He jerks us about: an outburst, a reverie, a non sequitur, a Bible lesson. It's a pleasant work, but it doesn't challenge. The best line occurs right at the top. Darwin ogles the California girls on the beach. “Who needs evolution when you have plastic surgery?” That quip goes unexplored.
Harlan is a laid back Darwin in his Hawaiian shirt and shorts, content by his life of little pressure and small domestic pleasures. His place in history secure, a banana smoothie makes his day. It's a delightful characterization, but by the second act he's relegated to the background as Huxley and Wilberforce go at it, picking the scabs of their past history that doesn't seem so past. You're a Taurus, says prescient Sarah to Huxley, and Sandel snorts and paws the ground to deflect Wilberforce's righteous fervor.
But this is Wilberforce's play. Whether Whittle throws it to him, or director Rebecca Greene Udden subtly pushes the character to the fore, Cravens envelops Wilberforce with steely determination and quiet dignity. He shakes the play awake. His conversion at play's end is abrupt and unconvincingly written, yet Craven brings such subterranean life to Wilberforce that we believe it. There are facets to this character that Whittle never sees. Cravens sees. The play, at once breezy, takes on gravity and unexplored meaning. This is an actor at the pinnacle of his game. It's a pity Malibu can't rise to his challenge.
Darwin in Malibu continues through October 24 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; and 3 p.m. Sundays. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard. Patrons will be required to wear masks and show their vaccination card or negative COVID test (within 48 hours) prior to entering the theater. For more information call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $35-$59.