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The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

Lily Tomlin in
The Search for Signs...
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
I have this acute feeling of déjà vu every time I walk by the Booth Theatre on West 45th Street. There, big as life, is a marquee that heralds Lily Tomlin in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. I know this isn't 1985; and yet, inside the Booth, time has stopped. Entertainment-deprived persons can once again revel in the divine Tomlin performing writer/director Jane Wagner's vintage grab bag of feel-good, mushy, vagina-loving, '80s characters, all of them spouting timeless wit and wisdom.

At age 61 (yes, 61!), Lily Tomlin has the agility of a woman half her age. Though The Search for Signs... must be grueling for Tomlin, she performs the piece as if it were a romp. The jumps and the near-somersaults are still here as she tumbles into a fistful of characters including the delightful Trudy, the punkish Angus Angst, and the exhaustive Lyn (who dominates Act Two with her own mini-drama).

For those who did not see The Search for Signs... during its legendary 1985 Broadway run, for which Tomlin won a Tony Award in the leading actress category, the play--and it is a play rather than a one woman show, even if Tomlin is the only soul we ever see on stage--is basically a travelogue of several woman and a couple of men as they course through life, occasionally bumping into one another. Act One is pretty much "the punk and Trudy show." Trudy is a nutty bag lady who talks to aliens about soup and art; as the aliens' tour guide here on Earth, she busies herself in pointing out the feckless wonders of universal creation. ("Going crazy was the best thing that ever happened to me," Trudy tells us as her shopping cart screeches along.) Soon enough, we're introduced to Agnes Angst, an adorably dysfunctional punk rocker. At one point, Agnes screeches "I don't mind it" while her hand flutters over a flame. She and Trudy are eventually joined by Chrissy and Kate and, before you know it, Tomlin has a crowd on stage.

Act Two is, more or less, a play within the play as the character Lyn goes about managing her yard sale, facing the world as a newly single woman after a lifetime of waterbeds, health foods, and geodesic domes. Her friends Edie and Marge complete this feminist triangle, and their story is ultimately moving, although it creaks every 10 or 15 minutes. Tomlin may be alone on stage, but she is ably supported by Ken Billington's lighting; drenching Ms. T. in colors and textures that give resonance to Wagner's words, these lights sing.

When a revival of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe was announced, the news took this reviewer very much by surprise. How was it possible that the gifted Jane Wagner hadn't written anything new for Tomlin that might be suitable for Broadway? Why a revival of a 15-year-old property? The original production had a healthy run in New York and toured everywhere, the published script made The New York Times best-seller list, and a movie was even made of the show. I thought: Jane and Lily, what's up? But history does have a tendency to repeat itself, and that's not always a bad thing. We are blessed that Lily Tomlin has dusted off her old marquee and schlepped it back to Broadway one more time.


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