The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in The Universe at The Shed feels like two plays’ in one. Dominating the stage is Trudy a bag lady, who makes clever and at times hysterical observations of the society around her. She has the sticky post in her raincoat lining to prove it. Then we get the other eleven roles which include a sullen teen punk Agnus Angst; the feminist activists Edie, Lyn and Marge; and the wealthy posh Kate. Their scenes are interwoven by through Trudy, who seems more like an enlightened vagrant, who believes she is in communication with aliens.
In 1986 The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in The Universe was a vehicle for comedian Lilly Tomlin and her performance won her a Tony for best actress in a play as well as Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience. Directed by John Bailey, the play ran for 391 performances and would tour for much longer throughout the United States. It was made into a film in 1991 and later would have a Broadway revival from 2000 – 1.
In changing with the times, Jane Wagner (playwright, executive producer and Lily Tomlin’s spouse) has updated the show to include things like AI and the digital era, along with technology as it affects us today. Like Lilly Tomlin, its new star, Cecily Strong (Saturday Night Live) is very deft with comedic expressions and gives us “the business” for a full laughter effect. The star and the show are successful on many fronts: great sound and special effects by Jeremy Chernick and Elisheba Ittoop; great lighting by Stacey Derosier (for all the women who thought they were Mad, No One Is Forgotten). The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in The Universe needs all the elements to work together for the show is to be successful and they do. This one-woman show has superb sound and lighting as well as acting.
As a comedian and an actor, Cecily Strong matches Tomlin role for role. Both actors are cut from the same acting cloth, coming out of “Laugh In” and “SNL”. Their styles are similar, and they make similar acting choices. Through 90 minutes, Strong keeps the audience amused, enlightened and enraptured.
The reverb in the background, and the lights give us a chilling effect between the new scenarios. With a one woman show like this, director Leigh Silverman (Grand Horizon, The Lifespan of a Fact) was able to bring finality to one scene and then another with these strong fade outs and fade ins. We see Trudy separately, as we do Agnus, Kate and the rest, yet they blend seamlessly into the same play. Brilliantly Wagner has all the different characters ebbing and flowing at different times throughout the performance. Kate is able to meet Trudy, the prostitutes and Bootcie the hairdresser outside Carnegie Hall. Chrissy’s children protect little Isaac, he is the violinist playing at Carnegie Hall (his mother went to the same college and she and Chrissy were best friends).
When Ihe Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in The Universe first came to Broadway it was billed as philosophical, political look exploring American society, art, power and the feminist movement. Like then, it still isn’t in the audiences face nor overbearing on any one subject. It pokes fun at the many things we hold dear.
Cecily Strong who makes her New York stage debut is excellent. Strong carries the show. The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in The Universe is at its best when we meet the hippie girls from the 60’s who wanted to change the world. Young and naïve they got involved with every cause they could find. The ERA was going to give them equality, the EPA was the earth’s savior, and they would one day all get married and save the world. As time went on, they all got a dose of reality/. Life wasn’t as simple as they thought. The writing became interesting, knowing the outcome.
I enjoyed this play much more now than I did back in 1985 when I saw this show at The Plymouth Theatre. Maybe I understand The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in The Universe more as I can look back at life then and laugh.
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in The Universe: The Shed, 545 West 30th Street until Feb. 6th.