|THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE...|
“I made some studies and reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it,” says Trudy, the crazy-not-crazy homeless woman who acts as our tour guide through Jane Wagner’s award-winning 1985 play “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” now getting an Off-Broadway revival under Leigh Silverman’s assured direction at The Shed -- with “Saturday Night Live” star Cecily Strong more-than-gamely stepping into the possibly unfillable shoes of its original star (and Wagner’s life partner) Lily Tomlin.
Those few words alone prove just how timely this show often feels in the era of Covid – after all, are we not all overwhelmed by stress and reality? But so do many of the 90-minute work’s other themes -- including women’s perpetual worries over body issues, economic, sexual and domestic equality and the loss of “joy” in their lives -- that pop up during the “vignettes” Trudy exposes us to as she travels through space and time. 1985 or 2022? You tell me.
Plus, there’s no denying that Wagner’s gift for finding the perfect line (“I am tired of being the victim of trends I don’t understand.” or “I always wanted to be somebody, but now I realize I should have been more specific.”) remains not just something to marvel at, but also provides the laughs we all desperately need today.
Still, both the work and the production fall short of the perfection one might have hoped for. First, some of the references feel so dated (for example, a rally for the ERA) that they threaten to pull the audience out of the piece. Secondly, some of the 10 characters played by Strong, such as the ditzy prostitute Brandi or unhappy teen Agnes Angst, now feel a little cliched – even if Wagner’s humanity for each of them still shines through. Lastly, this kind of one-person, multi-character piece seemed revolutionary in 1985; in recent years, one seems to pop up every week.
Somewhat surprisingly, as well, Strong (making her New York City stage debut) is perhaps a little too subtle in changing voices or gestures to fully distinguish each character, and without the benefit of the costumes and make-up that help her flesh out her vivid creations on “SNL,” she simply doesn’t come off as the kind of chameleon the play requires. We’re almost always aware that we’re watching Cecily Strong (which in and of itself is far from a bad thing!)
That said, her superb comic timing does make the most of many moments, especially the priceless gag about aliens not being able to differentiate between a can of Campbell’s soup and Andy Warhol’s recreation of the can. Most importantly, she brings a remarkable dramatic gravitas to the work, most notably in her portrayals of the too-privileged Kate or Lyn, the feminist who tries – and fails – to “have it all.” We don’t expect to choke up during this play, but Strong makes us do that more than once.
Indeed, when this run is over, Strong needs to search for a play that will take advantage of this aspect of her talent. When she finds one, I’ll even buy a ticket!
By Brian Scott Lipton
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