A lifetime ago, while still living in New York, I had dinner with comedian Sandra Bernhard and a mutual friend. Having been a fan of her uncategorizable cabarets, I said I’d love to see her take her performance to Broadway one day. With characteristic bluntness, she replied that for that to happen she would need what Lily Tomlin was lucky enough to have: her very own Jane Wagner.
Bernhard’s comment echoed in my head as I watched the slow revival of Wagner’s “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” at the Mark Taper Forum. The one-man show, in which Tomlin made it big on Broadway in 1985, has been adapted for Cecily Strong, one of the shining lights of “Saturday Night Live” for the past 10 years.
The problem is one that a tailor could instantly recognize. A theatrical garment tailored for one artist will never fit another, no matter how extensive the alterations.
I was a die-hard fan of Tomlin’s sketch comedy in my youth. Every time “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” was shown on television in the 1970s, I waited breathlessly for the appearance of Edith Ann, the defiantly philosophical five-and-a-half-year-old in the giant rocking chair, or Ernestine, the telephone operator. intimidating. , whose “one ringy-dingy” and passive-aggressive snort were my idea of comedy heaven. A chameleon with a cunning subversive streak, Tomlin contained mad crowds.
In “The Search for Signs,” Wagner provided an elaborate showcase for Tomlin’s wide range of gifts as a beloved comedian and actor who had been nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Robert Altman’s “Nashville.” The play is full of quirky characters, most notably Trudy the Tramp, who has lost her mind and in the process made contact with aliens curious about higher consciousness on Earth.
But the tongue-in-cheek social commentary is interwoven with the larger trick. The humor represents a perfect marriage between Wagner’s observational wit and Tomlin’s dry madness. Trudy asks, “What is reality anyway? Nothing more than a collective hunch.” The voice behind these words belongs to one of the most thoughtful couples in contemporary comedy.
Strong gets close to the wackiest of characters: Chrissy, the aerobics fanatic constantly trying to boost her paltry self-esteem; Agnus, the distraught “punk girl poet” who lashes out at the world that despises her; Kate, the Manhattan socialite who suffers from terminal boredom in a hair salon, with a less exaggerated twist. Sillyness is kept at bay, but at the cost of a delusional drive.
Strutting male figures make cameo appearances, but the work is devoted to surveying a limited cross-section of women. These characters are peppered with pathos but designed for laughs.
By highlighting its more ostentatious quirks, Tomlin differentiated this parade of misfits and misfits for his audience. He heavily normalizes these soulseekers by endowing each aspect with their own glowing personality. Its cartoonish edges are sanded down, but begin to blend into a compassionate blur.
Wagner condensed the play into one act for this revival, which opened late last year at the Shed in New York. The rewrite focuses on material from the deeper second half of the original version. When we first meet Lyn, she is riding into the future with the women’s movement, along with Edie and Marge, her best friends and support system. The landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion has empowered this sisterhood, but progress falls short of its heady promise.
Edie, a radical lesbian journalist who was fired after Rupert Murdoch bought her paper, is working on a book, “What’s Left of the Left.” Marge, dealing with the aftermath of a rape, develops a drinking problem and comes to a ghoulish end with a macramé planter.
Desperate to balance a meaningful career with being a wife and mother, Lyn feels oppressed by the sensibilities of her husband, whose personal ethics are not as impeccable as his political commitments. Lyn’s epiphany: “Had I known this is what it would be like to have it all, I might have been willing to settle for less,” sums up the journey from the hopeful days of the liberation movement to the consumerism and greedy individualism that remained depressed.
Strong brings a radiant humanity to this rollercoaster of history. The warmth of his smile invites you to live the life behind these theatrical snapshots. But the writing cannot withstand Chekhovian scrutiny. The craziness at the heart of the show is unnecessarily muffled.
The production, directed by Leigh Silverman, is moving and a bit boring. Christine Jones and Mary Hamrick’s stage design, consisting of a carpeted stage, two cubes, and a magic-less arch of lights, has a deadening effect. Strong could also be performing in a finished basement.
Sound effects are used instead of props. At the opening on Wednesday, there was a mistake at the end of the production between a gesture and the noise that accompanied it. He forcefully acknowledged the moment with mischievous subtlety to the delight of the audience. I hadn’t realized the extent of the lethargy until that gaffe woke up the house.
When “The Universe’s Search for Signs of Intelligent Life” was revived on Broadway in 2000, 15 years after its opening, the show felt dated. For social comedy that trades in the zeitgeist, 15 years is an eternity.
The world has changed even more seismically since the turn of the millennium. I found myself unable to generate much nostalgic fun at the mention of erogenous zones, gestalt therapy, assertiveness training, jazz exercises, bataka bats, and geodesic domed houses. Are pantyhose still sold in egg bins? Sometimes I felt like I was in a dream from old commercials on YouTube, despite the Elon Musk joke being added.
The final flowering of sentimental wisdom, which Tomlin could barely make work of in his day, is not earned. What Strong needs is exactly what Bernhard identified for herself: her own Jane Wagner. This sassy comedienne, whose clown, the clown on “Saturday Night Live,” made a strong comment about abortion last year, belongs to a different era of comedy and feminism than Wagner and Tomlin and deserves her own vehicle.
‘The search for signs of intelligent life in the universe’
Where:Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA
When: 20:00 Tuesday-Friday, 2:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturdays, 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 23. (Call for exceptions).
Tickets: $35-$120 (subject to change)
Information: (213) 628-2772 orcenterteatrogroup.org
Execution time:90 minutes without interruption
COVID protocol:Check centertheatregroup.org/safety for current and up-to-date information.