THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE Written and directed by Jane Wagner
It was New Year’s Eve, and, onstage at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, comedian Lily Tomlin was telling an adoring audience that she was worried. “I worry that humanity has advanced to its present level of incompetency because evolution works on the Peter Principle,” she confided. “I worry that if peanut oil comes from peanuts and olive oil comes from olives, where does baby oil come from?” she said, covering her eyes in mock horror. “And,” she added, “I worry that you’re here because friends invited you, the ones who are going to prove to you that I’m funny.” The 49-year-old Detroit-born performer was playing herself for a brief moment before introducing the dozen characters she portrays in her one-woman show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. A feat of comic ingenuity, Signs is about the quest for meaning in an age of anxiety. The play made its Canadian première in Toronto last week, heralded by a host of theatrical awards it has earned since it opened on Broadway in 1985.
Written by Jane Wagner, Tomlin’s longtime collaborator, Signs—in Toronto until Feb. 11—is a hilarious and often poignant panorama of North American life in the 1970s and 1980s. The characters who people it are so varied and
so instantly recognizable that they would gladden a pollster’s heart. They are introduced by Tomlin as the narrator, Trudy, a New York City bag lady who has suffered what she calls a few “lapses of the synapses.” Ever since her nervous breakdown (she prefers the word “break through"), Trudy has been able to tune in to other people’s minds—a result of bungled shock treatments. She has become a human video cassette recorder, an involuntary eavesdropper on the high comedy and not-so-quiet desperation around her. Her affliction is also her salvation, because she is no longer bound by convention—“I can take reality in small doses, but as a lifestyle I found it too confining,” she explains. Her newfound ability has also put her in touch with invisible space aliens who befriend her and make her their guide on a fact-finding mission about life on Earth.
As the world turns in Trudy’s head, Tomlin enacts the ongoing soap opera—playing all the parts herself. There is Agnus Angst, a 15-yearold punk performance artist whose venomous verbal pyrotechnics cannot disguise her need to be loved. She is a leather-clad latchkey kid of divorced parents, and now her father’s new wife has changed the locks on the doors. Agnus’s grandparents, Lud and Marie, are bothered and more than a little bewildered by what Lud calls “a pink-haired punk granddaughter who’s got the manners of a terrorist and wears somethin’ makes the garage door flap up.” Another zap to Trudy’s brain beams in
Chrissie, the lonely unemployed fitness freak who delivers an alternately goofy and touching monologue about false hope while breathlessly performing aerobics.
Tomlin’s ability to switch from one character to another is astounding. And she conjures them up without benefit of props or costumes. Clad only in a green-and-blue tracksuit, the intense, rubber-faced artist inhabits every character from the inside out, and each exhibits distinctive gestures, intonations, tics and speech patterns. In a physically demanding, two-hour performance in which Tomlin cues her movements to changes in lighting and sound effects, she reveals split-second timing. In one five-second sequence, Agnus Angst pretends to outfit herself in a leather bodysuit, each imaginary zipper briskly—and loudly— zipped up at wrist, elbow, knee and ankle.
Tomlin’s acting virtuosity is evident from the beginning, but the play’s structure is too loose in the first act. The series of cameo appearances threatens to spin off, disconnected, into space. But in the second act, Wagner’s script reveals the underlying attraction between the disparate characters as they are subtly drawn into each other’s orbit. Gradually—through casual references, a dropped name—they start to experience, in infinitesimal measure, what the space aliens claim is a universal truth: “We all time-share the same atoms.”
Wagner, who co-wrote and coproduced Tomlin’s four albums and four Emmy-winning TV specials—as well as writing and directing Tomlin’s 1977 Broadway play, Appearing Nitely—has an uncanny eye for counterculture trends and consumer objects that encapsulate an era. Her descriptions of clothing (“Indian cotton drawstring pants, Birkenstock sandals and a T-shirt that said ‘Whales save us’ ”) can evoke a whole subculture. Her depiction of Lyn, the justifiably confused feminist who experiences New Age romance in the 1970s and the perils of marriage, motherhood and a highpowered career in the 1980s, is a superb mix of comic exaggeration and wry social commentary on everything from sexual politics to selfimprovement seminars. As she exhaustedly rushes from home to office to class, Lyn admits, “If I’d known this is what it would be like to have it all, I might have been willing to settle for less.”
Compassion pervades the play: even those easiest to lampoon are never undermined. At first sight, Kate, a terminally bored socialite recovering from a disastrous cut by hairdresser Bucci the Arrogant, is a monster of selfishness. Later, she finds a stranger’s suicide note, and the experience transforms her into a more humane person. Her awakening belies one of the play’s earlier lines: “No matter how cynical we become, it’s never enough to keep up.”
Immensely entertaining, subversive in its send-up of contemporary life, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe uncovers ample evidence of intelligence—and proves that Tomlin is still one of the brightest stars in the comic galaxy.
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