The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe explodes with wit, warmth, wisdom, and humanity: I don't think it's possible to leave the theatre untouched by it. Jane Wagner's script is so strong that, hearing it fifteen years after it was written, it sounds as epigrammatic as an Oscar Wilde play. Consider:

"All my life I've always wanted to be somebody. But I see now I should have been more specific."

"I have gained and lost the same ten pounds so many times over and over again my cellulite must have deja vu."

"I am sick of being the victims of trends I reflect but don't even understand."

"No matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up."

That last one, especially, seems remarkably prescient for 1985: as the Me Generation gave way to post-everything America at the end of the millennium, the cautionary sagacity of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life got burnished into our collective consciousness. So it's good to have it back, for a reconsideration, at this particular moment. Here's an artifice of popular culture that has transcended into art. From the audience, we can look back--all the way to the sixties, when Lily Tomlin was quietly subverting monoliths as Ernestine the Operator; and we can look forward--with hope and humanity.

At the center of it all is, of course, Tomlin's miraculous performance in this piece. Itself the standard by which all solo performers from Whoopi Goldberg to Eric Bogosian to Danny Hoch must and should aspire, this is acting of the highest order. What Tomlin does in this show is a tour de force, conjuring character and place with vivid clarity without changing costume or makeup. She's not just merely believable as each of the dozen people she creates here, though: she inhabits them--breathes such life in them, in fact, that they become prototypes: signposts of our lives and times: a veritable gallery of humanity.

Indeed, the very conceit of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life is that aliens from another world have latched onto the eccentric but very in-tune bag lady Trudy to try to learn something about life here on Earth. The astonishing thing is that the conceit really works: it's not a gimmick, it's the foundation of a play of near-epic reach. Trudy channels for them a sampling of Earthlings: an alienated teenager who calls herself Agnus Angst, an upwardly mobile yuppie named Chrissy, two Manhattan hookers called Brandy and Tina. And what unfolds, for the aliens and the audience, is an organic journey into the hearts and souls of these and several other lives, randomly and inextricably linked. As the play nears its wondrous conclusion, what feel at first like half-a-dozen disparate one-act plays merge into a seamless and inevitable whole.

You won't forget the long, touching saga of Lyn, Edie, and Marge, three women who become friends at the height of the feminist movement of the late sixties; nor are you likely ever to look at a can of Campbell's soup (or an Andy Warhol painting) in quite the same way after you've seen Trudy explain them to her alien friends. And it's just possible that, after you experience the extraordinary ending of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, you will have a renewed appreciation for the very idea of theatre. Tomlin and Wagner achieve connection to their audience in a visceral, wonderful way. A playwright friend of mine told me he could never imagine writing an ending as good as this one, and, with due respect to his talent, he's probably right.

Tomlin, who is past sixty but defies any regular notion of age, has extended the run of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life for several weeks already, and if we're lucky she'll agree to go on for many more. Anybody who loves theatre should see this show and this performer--it's genuinely one of those special events that only happens a few times in a decade.