Corrections or additions?
This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the October 25,
2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Review: Lily Tomlin in `Search for Signs’
If you thought Homer had a good story to tell in
Odyssey," wait until you hear the fantastical tale, featuring
some equally strange characters, that Lily Tomlin is spinning at the
McCarter Theater. When Trudy, a crazy, philosophizing bag lady, is
chosen by adventuring space aliens as their perfect conduit for
intelligent life in the universe, she explains the phenomenon thus:
"My space chums think my unique hookup with humanity could be
evolution’s awkward attempt to jump-start itself again."
This is also Tomlin’s attempt to jump-start herself again as a stage
performer in her partner and tied-in-consciousness collaborator Jane
Wagner’s 1985 one-woman, multi-character play, "The Search for
Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe." Tomlin doesn’t really
need a jump-start, she just needs an audience: "I’m so glad that
you came tonight. I sometimes worry no one will show up, and without
you, there’d be little point in me being here," she tells us.
The point is that although the title has more words than you may care
to remember, the play is also filled with dialogue that you wish you
could remember and quote at will. And how many plays can you say that
about? Simply but effectively designed (kudos to Klara Zieglerova’s
cosmic setting, Ken Billington’s blazing lighting, and Thomas Clark
and Mark Bennett’s super sound effects), `The Search’ remains one
of the more extraordinary solo dramatic narratives to be created for
the stage. Certainly there have been one-woman and one-man shows
the years that have earned praise for performance, content, and style,
but none — I assure you — has ever even remotely attempted
to balance drama, comedy, social, and political satire with such wit,
originality, and depth.
The impact of the play, under Wagner’s direction and with Tomlin’s
dazzling performance, was considerable when it first appeared on
As tweaked and polished as it is for this revival, time and
resonances prevent it from having the fresh punch of the original.
Unable or unwilling to entirely bridge the gap between the time it
was written and the present, we note how the persona of the bag lady
still seems anchored in the ’80s, just as her hookers’ points of
still belong back then. The McCarter engagement follows more than
a year’s cross-country tour of the resuscitated play, and precedes
a 10-week Broadway run at the Booth Theater, set to begin November
Contrary to any misguided belief, it is Wagner and not
Tomlin who is responsible for every word of the text (or so we are
informed) that is, nonetheless, an amazing maze of narrative
Notwithstanding the minor changes of a script that was expanded 15
years ago for the extremely popular published version, the play is
still filled with the same odd and endearing characters. They run
the gamut in both age and intelligence and provide the incredibly
energized and agile 61-year-old Tomlin with just the latitude and
longitude she needs to fully inhabit a world of the wild, wacky, and
There is within the content and context of this duo’s collective
a vivid, moving landscape of contemporary Americana. If that landscape
has been altered by the normal tide of evolving and dissolving psyches
and the blending of once easily recognizable types, we can still react
positively to the play through Tomlin’s personalized brand of
psychomania. A Tony Award-winner for this show, Tomlin has, if
grown in her ability to bring compassion as well as laugh-out-loud
physical humor to what is human in Wagner’s characters.
The varied and colorful characters that parade through this often
dark social satire do not, however, include such stalwart Tomlin
as Ernestine, the telephone operator, Tommy Velour, the lounge lizard,
or Bobbi Jeanine, the ersatz organist. Instead, look for a bag lady
in tune with extraterrestrials, a pair of savvy and sad New York
a California feminist ("All right now, Trudy, don’t mess with
me. I am coasting on my own chemistry and I am volatile, baby"),
a hard-line lesbian, plus a bevy of inter-social, inter-media and
inter-planetary types converging in a commentary on the stagnating
The ability to find humor in tragic circumstances and embrace a
situation with poignancy is what makes Tomlin stand out among the
best of her peers. The Tomlin style, developed in New York cabaret
in the 1960s, nurtured on TV’s "The Garry Moore Show," and
"The Music Room," came into its own in "Laugh In,"
where she met Wagner and began their long-term relationship. Tomlin’s
movie career had its ups — "Nashville" (Oscar nomination)
— and its downs — "Moment by Moment" (with John
But mainly it was somewhere in between. A series of lauded TV specials
was the segue for a successful run in the 1980s on "Saturday Night
Now it’s Tuesday through Sunday live for Tomlin who never seems to
stop moving. Her body, and particularly her face, can manage a
from one character to another without trickery. There is no waiting
for either inspiration or preparation. They are there at every
The interplay of character, in two-and-a-half hours (with
without anything more than Tomlin’s unadorned artistry, except for
wearing basic black, may not fulfill everyone’s idea of theater. But
if a grand cabaret format is what the lady needs to display her (and
Wagner’s) wares, so be it.
Sometimes the jokes, consistently funny and trenchant as they are,
get in the way of characters on the verge of greater dimension, and
sometimes the busyness is essentially just dizziness. This nit-picking
aside, the wonder of Tomlin, is that we can always see, within her
rich, grab-bag humanity, a humor behind the sadness and raised
behind "Agnes Angst." And as Agnes would say "To boldly
go (with no apologies to Princeton) where no punk has gone before.
Suburbia." "The Search" may be just what a therapist might
order to validate both the repressed optimist and the depressed
— Simon Saltzman
McCarter Theater, 609-258-2787. $29 to $42. To November 5.
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