DARWIN IN MALIBU is Main Street Theater’s auspicious return to live theatre. Interestingly enough they are letting audiences either come to their facility in Rice Village to see the play in person or stream it from home if they choose. This is a lively light comedy that has big ideas backing it up. True to form, Main Street has cobbled together an amazing cast and incredible technical arts to bring this work to life. It’s a fun and intriguing show that I found to be satisfying on many levels with only a minor quibble here and there. I left with a broad smile thinking that it was a signature piece for the company, and well worth checking out here in Houston.
The plot is odd in that it opens with Charles Darwin hanging out casually on a deck in Malibu, California in our modern times. A young woman comes in and offers him a shake, and the afternoon seems to creep by in a peaceful pastoral way. An unexpected visitor arrives in the form of Darwin’s biggest supporter in academia, Thomas Huxley. He brings news that on the way is Bishop Samuel Wilberforce who staunchly opposed Darwin’s theory on religious grounds. So the setup is these three are going to be reunited in the afterlife hundreds of years later on a beach in Malibu. Throw in we have a modern woman, and it seems you have the start of a lively party that will culminate in modern California taking on the mid 1800s sensibility of science and faith. You see none of these characters understand why they are here after they have died, and that seems as elusive as whether God or Darwin is in the right.
David Harlan makes for an outstanding Darwin complete with long white beard and bald hairstyle. He embodies a laid back ease that only a man who has hung out on a California beach for a hundred and twenty years would have. He cruises through the play easily taking on the softly spoken but confident Darwin who has evolved into a superior being. He has great chemistry with Sarah who is the lone woman in the cast played by Mai Le. Mai is an interesting choice for the role physically, and her endearing and earnest delivery of her lines makes her character seem far more real than the scientific and religious legends surrounding her. She has the most moving moments of the script and handles them well. Joel Sandel plays Huxley and Rutherford Cravens tackles the role of Bishop Wilberforce. The two actors bring the comedy to life in the play with their lively and somewhat comical debates about science and religion. The highpoints of their interactions include them debating Noah’s Ark and then challenging each other to a “strip off” as the climax to their sparring. They are a hoot!
The set is a huge patio on a beachfront house, and it is beautifully executed by Torsten Louis and the scenic crew. Lighting and sound are also pitch perfect, and I found the technical elements on par with much larger houses in Houston. There is an effect at the climax of the show that is wonderfully imaginative. Main Street Theater offers some of the best production values in Houston.
My only frustration with DARWIN IN MALIBU lies in its script. It swings for some big fences bringing together these three contemporaries in our modern world to debate evolution versus creationism. You would imagine given over a hundred years of science and wonders would evolve their arguments to make the resulting conversations seem impossibly riveting. But alas, the show asks all the right questions without ever hinting at any of the answers. It has a final message that asks the audience to become like Darwin in this scenario, and just be content with the waves, the wind, and the wonderful company of a lively fascinating woman we will never understand. It’s about as deep as the song that opens the show is. So if you find the lyrics of the Eagles hit “Hotel California” to hold the meaning of life, you should be satisfied. But if not, you may walk away wanting a little bit more than just a banana shake.
The show never gets to where it promises to go in the setup, but thanks to a great cast and a gung-ho production team it does entertain. DARWIN IN MALIBU works great as a light comedy, and it lets the actors showcase their immense skills at creating wonderful characters. You just wish the script could live up to their smarts, but you’ll still think about the big picture in the end. Main Street Theater does right by the play, and offers audiences something special with this one.
DARWIN IN MALIBU runs through October 24th at Main Street Theater located at 2540 Times Boulevard in the Rice Village. More information can be found at their web site https://mainstreettheater.com/ . Live shows are usually performed Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights with curtain at 7:30pm. Sunday afternoon performances are at 3:00pm. Streaming options are available at your convenience. Masks are required inside the theater auditorium for the duration of the performance, and the box office asks for either proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test. The show is performed in two acts with a fifteen minute intermission.
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