Penned by award-winning Jane Wagner and originally performed by talented Lilly Tomlin, THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE first found its way to Broadway in 1986, where it won the 1986 Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience, as well as the Tony Award for solo star Lilly Tomlin. The collaboration between Wagner and Tomlin had already won Emmy Awards before 1986 for television specials written by Wagner and performed by Tomlin in 1974, 1976, and 1981. Over the years, Wagner has been Tomlin’s comedy writer, collaborator, and wife. So popular was the play that Wagner adapted THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE into a successful film starring Tomlin which was released in 1991. Nearly 40 years after its initial success, THE SEARCH FOR INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE has returned to the Mark Taper Forum in 2022 and stars Cecily Strong.
Best known for her stint in Saturday Night Live, Strong is tasked with following in Tomlin’s gigantic footsteps as a solo performer who plays 12 separate characters (10 female and 2 male) and herself. The disparities between socioeconomic class (bag lady to wealthy socialite), age (14-year-old teen rebel to adults making their way in the world), and chosen life paths (wife, mother, corporate executive, prostitute, lesbian), these multiple characters afford vitality to the piece. It seems that aliens have decided to visit our little world. They are seekers of truth – and thrills – who have the extraterrestrial power to move a certain bag lady into the bodies (or bio containers) of different folks on the planet. They are looking for awe – and finally goosebumps – so that they can bring their memories back to their own reality. Thus, they must explore the range of human experience through the transfers which they initiate and control.
Directed by Leigh Silverman, THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE has the monumental job of searching out the meaning of life – or is it the mystery of life – in 90 minutes. Each character must stand on his/her own as a unique human being and keep firing up the audience as he/she posits endless questions – many of which have no clear answers – while engaging in humorous and often very comic situations and quandaries. As might be anticipated from the time period when the play was written and initially performed, the solo show explores many of the issues of concern in the 1970s and 1980s, including feminism, sexuality, and life goals. While many of these issues still remain only partially resolved, nonetheless the show may feel somewhat dated – especially since new variations and concerns have emerged since the 1980s. While Strong does an adequate job of introducing so many very different people, the distinctions between them sometimes fade.
Christine Jones’ and Mary Hamrick’s scenic co-design is simple, largely relying on Lap Chi Chu’s lighting, Jeff Gardner’s sound, Anita Yavich’s costumes, and Steve Cuiffo’s illusion design to delineate changes in scene and character. THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE may initially seem a bit confusing – but eventually the point becomes clear. This is a deeply philosophical but also intermittently humorous study of people – and what outside observers might think of us. After all, the play is the soup, while the audience is the art. At the conclusion of the show, Strong announced that Lilly Tomlin was in the audience – a pleasant surprise.
THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE runs through October 23, 2022, with performances at 8 p.m. on Tuesdays through Fridays, at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays. The Mark Taper Forum is located in the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Tickets range from $35 to $120. For information and reservations, call 213-628-2772 or go online.