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Search for Sign of Intelligent Life a timeless period piece



Starring Lily Tomlin.

Written and directed by Jane Wagner.

Shubert Theater, through April 29.


LILY TOMLIN EXUDES TIMELESSNESS. In her humor, her pantomime, and her philosophy, she has become the quintessential comedienne of her generation and quite possibly of others as well. The aura she brings to her current vehicle, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, shoots off from the stage of the Shubert Theatre as though from one of those revolving glass balls in a disco. The sheer energy of her performance alone is a whirling wonder.

Search enables Tomlin to explore the foibles of the human race through the eyes of many of her most beloved characters, particularly "Trudy the Bag Lady." Trudy is an astoundingly insightful drop-out from the world of reason who has been put into contact with "space aliens" as a result of a bout with electro-shock therapy. The aliens, conducting the search alluded to by the show's title, are constantly late for their rendezvous with Trudy "at the corner of WALK/DON'T WALK." Through Trudy, they teach us about the pursuit of meaning, knowing, and feeling even as they themselves try to puzzle out the difference between a can of Campbell's Tomato ("soup") and an Andy Warhol painting of the same object ("art").

Segueing in a flash, Tomlin moves on to an 1980s version of the 1960s radical -- Agnus Angst, a 15-year-old performance artist at The Anti-Club in Indianapolis. Agnus has parents who have changed the locks on the front door of their house, thus confronting her with a crisis. Ironically enough, the audience gets the impression that it is really no greater than any of the other crises thrown her way. Agnus merely moves in with her grandparents, as hostile a place as any other, but from behind a locked bedroom door, one person's house is pretty much the same as another's. Despite her years (and perhaps in spite of them), Tomlin has not lost the dynamism and perspective necessary to portray a post-pubescent teenager convincingly.

Among the other characters in the first half of Search, we meet Kate, an upper-upper class New York social butterfly who spends more time waiting to get her hair done than she cares to think about. By inserting flashes of life in the boring lane, Search reminds us that affluence is not all it's cracked up to be. Kate finds an article which states that it is in fact possible to die from boredom, but alas, this too bores her. Tomlin's recursive humor, -- spiraling within a single joke, within a scene, between scenes, between characters -- serves beautifully as a metaphor for the futility of the entire human condition. By intermission, we are already dazzled by the onslaught of truth, paradox, and insight thrown at us, and we eagerly await more.

The second half of this amazing production, however, adopts a radically different tone. The audience travels on a whirlwind journey through ERA rallies, Gestalt therapy, and marriage in what is primarily a chronicle of Lyn, an early feminist at odds with herself as she attempts to reconcile political awareness with upward mobility. This nearly full-length piece gives remarkable insight into the issues that have confronted women throughout civilization, in particular during the past thirty years. Lyn finds herself dominated by lovers of both sexes and must take assertiveness training courses while her husband attends a sensitivity seminar. Trying to raise hyperactive twins ("future Darth Vaders"), hold down a full-time office job, maintain marital relations, and lend counsel to manically depressed friends has her running to her therapist at top speed.

Though these vignettes serve as a highly diverting exposition of gender issues, much of the dramatic tension here relies upon the ability to identify with Lyn's femininity. To me, the typical male chauvinist, at least, much here went unappreciated, and as a result, this part of the show tended to drag. Nevertheless, Tomlin brings us home with more of Trudy's outstanding observations, and she finished to a standing ovation from the delighted crowd.

Equally outstanding as Tomlin's thespianism and Wagner's writing are Neil Peter Jampolis' scenery and lighting. As much a member of the cast as Tomlin herself, the spectacular visual effects throw much of the play's impact into even sharper relief. Noteworthy too are the sound effects which complement Tomlin's energetic stage movements. The sounds of Angst's zippers, a car pulling out after nearly leveling Trudy, the slosh of an imaginary waterbed, and many other noises effectively complement the action.

Taken all in all, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe comes off as that rarest of animals: a timeless period piece. What we learn about ourselves and our culture as a result of observing Trudy as she observes us is significant, albeit elusive. As the aliens cryptically put it to Trudy, "the more you know, the less knowing the meaning of things... means."