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Review: Cecily Strong Embarks on The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

The SNL star resurrects Lily Tomlin's celebrated one-woman show.

Cecily Strong stars in the off-Broadway revival of Jane Wagner's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, directed by Leigh Silverman, at the Shed.
(© Kate Glicksberg)

Can a solo play that was written specifically for one actor ever be as satisfying when performed by another? That is the implicit question raised by the off-Broadway revival of Jane Wagner's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, starring Saturday Night Live and Schmigadoon! actor Cecily Strong at the Shed. Wagner wrote the play for her longtime partner Lily Tomlin, who won a 1986 Tony Award for the original Broadway production and headlined an acclaimed revival in 2000.

It's not an exaggeration to say that Tomlin was the reason ticket buyers flocked to Search for Signs in those previous runs: She's one of the great comic actors of our age, whose vocal inflections and rubbery facial expressions could make a reading of the phone book funny. Wagner's play is significantly more interesting than that, but it is also clearly written for Tomlin's voice — so can it ever really soar without her?

Cecily Strong plays Trudy in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe at the Shed.
(© Kate Glicksberg)

If anyone could make it work, it's Cecily Strong, a remarkable comic talent with a keen sense of theatricality. She gamely introduces us to Wagner's characters, none of which feel like cheap imitations of Tomlin: There's Trudy, a creative consultant turned bag lady; Agnes Angst, a runaway teen performance artist; and Brandi, a prostitute who knows her most important job is as a therapist. Strong portrays them all with aplomb, bringing her idiosyncratic charm to each role. It's still not quite enough to overcome a very strange and often uneven play.

This is despite changes Wagner has made to the script, slashing an entire section and updating some of the language to reflect 2022. References to algorithms and Elon Musk live side by side with a bodybuilder/cokehead/sperm donor who pines for the "disco days" and makes us all wonder…just how old is this daddy? And while Trudy's scenes seem to be taking place in the here and now, repeated references to the ERA might have younger audience members searching their memories for the time they binged Mrs. America on Hulu.

Search for Signs is also the victim of changing trends in theatergoing, as Strong races to squeeze a show that previously ran two-and-a-half hours (including intermission) into 90 minutes without pause. The first half is overwhelming, as Strong rockets Wagner's witty one-liners and philosophical observations at our heads in a 45-minute barrage. Director Leigh Silverman seems to have instructed Strong to drive like a millionaire out of Manhattan in an effort to keep the audience engaged long enough to get to the part of the play she really cares about.

Cecily Strong appears in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.
(© Kate Glicksberg)

That would be the second half, where we are introduced to Lynn, an upper-middle class woman attempting to have it all: career, family, and a sense of doing good in the world. This is a story that has only become more relevant, and it is in this section that Wagner does her best writing. "It's hard to be politically conscious and upwardly mobile at the same time," Lynn laments, recognizing the insidious genius of marketing social consciousness as a luxury lifestyle. Finally, Strong is allowed to slow down and breathe, proving herself to be not just a talented comedian, but a gifted dramatic actor.

In her direction of design, Silverman wisely chooses not to distract from her performer. Mary Hamrick and Christine Jones offer a minimal set that appears like a theater in the early stages of tech, while Anita Yavich costumes Strong in an overcoat and pink legwarmers that bridge the divide between homeless utility and fashion statement. Stacey Derosier's lighting allows for seamless transitions, while Elisheba Ittoop's sound hints at extraterrestrial life watching from the highest balcony. Special effects designer Jeremy Chernick creates little moments of magic to accent Strong's performance without ever pulling focus from it. Altogether, it is a first-rate production.

Still, the play feels somewhat alien, as if it doesn't quite belong in this time with this performer. Rather than executing the gut renovation on Wagner's script that would have been necessary to make this Strong's play instead of Tomlin's, Silverman and the Shed should have commissioned an all-new play specifically tailored to Strong's voice and talents. She is more than capable of carrying such a production, and I hope I get to experience it in the future.