The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe Review. Cecily Strong Takes Over Lily Tomlin’s Characters

Trudy, a crazy bag lady who is one of the 11 characters that Cecily Strong portrays in this one-woman play originally performed by Lily Tomlin, tells us she brought her “space chums” — aliens from outer space — to the theater to see a show. They got goose bumps – not from the show; from watching the audience. “Yeah, to see a group of strangers sitting together in the dark, laughing and crying about the same things just knocked them out.”

 Earthlings surely understand the feeling these days, when we no longer can take gathering together in person for granted.  Feeling connected to strangers turns out to be not just the underlying theme of “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” but the reason the creative team thought it the right time to revive the play, in a somewhat reworked version that opens tonight at The Shed.

As Jane Wagner,  the playwright of the piece (and Tomlin’s wife), writes in the program: “I couldn’t bring myself to say ‘We’re all one,’ but I could have Trudy say ‘We all share the same atoms.’ I wanted us to flash on just that thought – that we’re all connected.”

Of course, Wagner also wrote the play as a vehicle for Tomlin, who won a Tony Award for her performance in the play on Broadway. At the time, Cecily Strong was two years old.

It might be too much to call Strong the Lily Tomlin of her generation, but her ten-year tenure on Saturday Night Live has generated many savage celebrity impersonations – Jeanine Pirro comes to mind – and some memorable original characters, most recently “Goober the Clown Who Had An Abortion When She Was 23,” who, while twirling her bowtie, squirting water out of her lapel, and honking a toy horn, makes a pointed pro-choice argument.

It’s therefore something of a surprise that the production didn’t strike me as a great showcase for Strong’s talents.  She’s toned down the wackiness of her SNL skits, as if she’s trying hard, in her New York stage debut, to measure up to the material and to Tomlin’s legacy, rather than making the characters her own.  She didn’t seem to be enjoying herself very much.

Still, Strong is a competent enough actress and comedienne to make the case for the continued effectiveness of Wagner’s play, which is craftier than simply an entertaining collection of disparate, sometimes desperate characters.

At first each does seem to live in their own separate universe. Against a darkened set with minimal costume changes, Strong embodies,  besides Trudy: a rich, bored housewife; a rapping punk teenager; a suicidal, job-hopping health club habitué; two prostitutes; a male bodybuilder;  and three friends who start out as feminist sisters in arms but take wholly different paths. (There’s also Strong as, presumably, herself,  who thanks us for showing up: “There’s always the chance that you might not show up.  I think most actors worry about playing to an empty house. I also worry about playing to a full house and leaving the audience empty.” ) The characters tell stories sometimes comic, sometimes touching, often both, and make observations that are witty or wise.  As the play progresses, we see that the individual characters are in fact connected to one another in various, sometimes convoluted ways. By the end, we understand that all the characters live in the same universe – as do we all.

This is not precisely the same play that Broadway audiences saw Tomlin perform in 1985 and then again in a 2000 revival. It’s cut down to ninety minutes now, with no intermission. Some characters have been eliminated. There are a few updated references; one character, for example, mentions Elon Musk, who founded Tesla in 2003. Other references, though, remain intact, and date the play. It’s also dated in other, less tangible ways.  A crazy bag lady has less resonance in the New York City of 2022 than it did in the 1980s, when the homeless mentally ill were more visible, both in the streets and in the headlines.

Yet even the characters who are the most inextricably located in a particular time and place manage to achieve if not timelessness, at least continuing relevance in our current age. Lyn, a radical feminist, tells one of her two feminist friends that she met a man named Bob at the “TM Center,” and fell for him right away: “He’s the only man I’ve ever known who knew where he was when Sylvia Plath died.”  There are still Transcendental Meditation centers, albeit not as high profile as they were in the 1970s, but Sylvia Plath died in 1963. This is not a story rooted in the 21st century. The play mocks Bob’s Buckminster Fuller Geodesic Home kit and Samadhi flotation tank. But as Lyn’s story unfolds, as she tells of her marriage to Bob, of motherhood, of disillusion with Bob, it becomes a witty critique of feminist truisms — “If I’d known this is what it would be like to have it all, I might have been willing to settle for less” — but also a poignant portrait of lost idealism: “How naive to think there was a time when we actually thought we were going to change the system, and all the time…the system was changing us.”

“The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” bluntly presents stories of suicide, prostitution, rape, abuse, disillusion and disappointment. But it does so in a way that doesn’t just make us laugh; it offers a way to hope. “Maybe,” says Trudy, the crazy bag lady who wears an umbrella hat, communes with extraterrestrials and quotes Buckminster Fuller and Sir Isaac Newton, “we should stop trying to figure out the meaning of life, and sit back and enjoy the mystery of life.”

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe
The Shed through February 6
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $53 to $139
Written by Jane Wagner
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Cast: Cecily Strong
Choreography: James Alsop
Set design: Mary Hamrick and Christine Jones
Costume design: Anita Yavich
Lighting design: Stacey Derosier

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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