Darwin in Malibu
Directed by Caitlin Bouxsein.
Through April 21 at the Mobtown Theater
Crispin Whittel’s Darwin in Malibu is infused with both the cleverness of a light comedy and the sharp, acute reality of a historical drama. The production of this nine-year old play by the Mobtown Players, directed by Caitlin Bouxsein, captures both: leaving the audience bemused, mystified, and—ultimately—touched.
One hundred and twenty years after his death, Charles Darwin relaxes peacefully in a beach house in Malibu, California overlooking the ocean with a young girl named Sarah. Their relationship, never fully explained, is unique: she makes him banana smoothies while he reads a trashy novel, and smokes a joint with him in the second act. Played by Anne Powell, Sarah is the weakest character in the play: the script gives her the ability to play a strange, nuanced girl, yet her lines are often delivered without power and expressiveness. Nonetheless, it is interesting watching her character unfold, and witnessing her relationship with Darwin—particularly her casual slang (often infused with cursing) juxtaposed with Darwin’s elevated diction. The two make an unlikely, yet weirdly appropriate, match.
Soon after the play begins, we are introduced to two other historical figures: the bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, and Darwin’s friend Thomas Huxley (nicknamed “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his enthusiastic support of Darwin’s work). Wilberforce and Huxley engaged in a heated debate at the British Association’s Oxford meeting in 1860—the bishop stood in fierce opposite to Darwin’s theory of evolution, maintaining a strong belief in the biblical interpretation of the origin of life. Huxley, played by Kevin Burke, is a solid actor, as is John D’Amato as the bishop, though both lack convincing British accents.
The set is near flawless: pink and yellow lights change positions as the play progresses, and layers of transparent tulle netting are draped behind the actors. A layer of sand covers a portion of the stage, and Sarah sits on a slightly elevated platform in front of a screen door through which she enters and exits. The soft lighting lulls the audience into a peaceful, beach-appropriate tranquility, only punctuated by Huxley and Wilberforce’s loud, angry debates. As the scenes change after blackouts, the lights’ colors move to orange and light green, and the gauzy netting in the background is repositioned. It is a simple set, yet nothing more is needed.
Mike Ware as Darwin is fantastic. Articulate and erudite, his lines are delivered with a strong, confident British accent. Whittel’s script gives Darwin (and Huxley) lines that are meant to produce laughs: “You’re born, you fuck, you die. In that order. . .if you’re a replicating machine and you die before you fuck, you’re fucked.” As the play continues, the three men become entangled in debates about science, God, plastic surgery, and death.
Spurred by the men’s clashing opinions concerning creation and religion, the debates are rife with convincing arguments, forceful disagreements, and a degree of passion that not only gives the actors the opportunity to give authentic, convincing performances, but allows the audience a wry glimpse into the minds of some of history’s most powerful thinkers.
The play slowly transforms, however, into a commentary on life and death. Huxley’s memories of his dead daughter and Darwin’s unconcealed pain about his deceased wife trigger emotion that shines through the lighthearted dialogue. Although it is undoubtedly funny—and blasphemous—when Thomas Huxley utters lines like “It just makes my balls go hard,” and Charles Darwin discusses the taste of Dr. Pepper, the play examines humanity: what drives us to love, and how we are impacted by death. Darwin in Malibu is not precisely an investigation of history; instead, it utilizes arguments rooted in the past to explore themes that have not changed since Darwin’s time.