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at the Falcon Theatre

In 1860 a debate took place between Anglican bishop Samuel Wilberforce and T.H. Huxley in which they argued the issues surrounding Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. British writer Crispin Whittell has spun from that event a thoroughly witty and erudite play easily appreciated when Darwin's science is again taking a hit from religious groups.

In a sea-weathered Malibu beach house, Charles Darwin (Robert Foxworth) sits, reads, watches the pelicans, and sips banana smoothies. He is bearded and Hawaiian-shirt clad, and his companion is a 20-something beach girl, Sarah (Rebecca Brooksher). Her penchant for joints and youthful slang appears to delight him. The arrival of Wilberforce (Corey Brill) and Huxley (Granville Van Dusen) quickly engenders lively conversation laced with good humor among all principals. Wilberforce is concerned that this location is purgatory; he was expecting to go straight to heaven. Huxley is thoroughly unconvinced that there is such a place as heaven, gleefully wrangling with the bishop, while Darwin looks on with amused interest.

This is good theatre: full of ideas, brimming with clever lines, and stimulating reflection. Beach Boys songs punctuate the scenes, seemingly written to match the unfolding situations: "God Only Knows" is a good case in point. The acting is top-notch, delivering a pair of acts that seem much too short. Foxworth is a laid-back pragmatist who serves to anchor the arguments. Van Dusen is deliciously roguish as he counters Brill's earnest, cheerful goodness. Though Brooksher's character is a bit of a cipher, she adds a contrasting female presence and makes the most of each scene.

Director Casey Stangl deftly harnesses the talented quartet, keeping things light and crisp. Keith E. Mitchell's attractive set adds a fine backdrop for the afterlife enjoyed by the characters. Lighting by Jeremy Pivnick casts an appropriately mellow mood, and sound designer Robert Arturo Ramirez integrates the frequent California beach music seamlessly. Lots of humor, bittersweet moments, and a provocative script add up to a show that stands out in this theatre season.

Presented by Bay Street Theatre in association with and at the Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Dr., Burbank. Tue.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 4 p.m. May 5-21. (818) 955-8101.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann

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