LOS ANGELES – It’s been 30 years (!) since actress Lily Tomlin won the 1986 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Broadway play for her solo performance in Jane Wagner’s iconic play The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Tomlin also appeared in the 1991 film and many stage revivals. Author and actress are creative and life partners, who married in 2013. They have now given their approval for the work to be reinvented as a fully staged production performed by a company of 12 actors. This first-ever fully cast production is directed by Ken Sawyer, whose production of Hit the Wall, about the Stonewall Rebellion, won numerous awards last year. The new Search plays in the same black-box space, the Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT Center.
The new staging of Wagner’s play is titled The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe: Revisited, so that audiences are tipped off that this is a reimagined version featuring an expanded cast. Relinquishing her solo coup de théâtre can’t have been impossible, busy as Tomlin is still: She’s currently in “Grace and Frankie” with Jane Fonda on Netflix.
Search: Revisited opens with Trudy, an intelligent, though visibly deranged street person played by Charlotte Gulezian, who is anticipating the arrival of aliens from outer space. Pushing her imaginary shopping cart around the stage, she asks us, “What is reality?” and answers, “Nothing but a collective hunch.”
Over the course of two acts bursting with the lovable weirdness of humanity, audiences take an emotionally moving and profound journey not only through Trudy’s streets but across the world, and into the far reaches of space. We meet a strangely compelling group of individuals who enact their phobias, friendships and familial roles in an almost frightening, but familiar frenzy. We know these people, and we are some of them.
The stage is intimate, a small round platform with one other smaller circular platform off to one side – a suggested planet and moon – a step ladder, a few chairs. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz had little space to work with for her set design, so Nick Santiago’s busy projections are critical to establishing the sense of place and time in the cosmos. Much use is made of old maps of the fateful constellations. Twinkly lighting effects by Matt Richter and Adam Earle transport us into the other worlds that lie not just out there, but in our own minds. The paucity of props makes it possible for us to understand the characters’ detailed physical actions as directed by mime instructor Mo Gaffney.
Search dates from the 1980s, and pokes gentle fun at some of our preoccupations of the time. Women comprise the majority of characters, so there’s a whole klatch of feminist activists demonstrating for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. The fact that the ERA still has not passed Congress is itself a potent sign that the play is hardly dated. If someone is obsessing about her bad haircut, hey, there’s nothing dated about that either, nor do we fail to recognize those sorry people who claim to be dying of boredom. Other characters are deeply “into” personal growth, self-improvement and “seminar hopping,” drugs or alcohol, imagining themselves as performance artists, and the more ordinary, extraordinary roles of parenthood – both of the traditional and the turkey-baster kind – that fail, mostly for the lack of solidarity in society.
Everyone’s got their illusions about life, work, love and success, and some of us our delusions as well. As wise Wagner has one of her characters say, “Without false hope the economy would – well – collapse.” Literature is full of fools, idiots and nut jobs who from the recesses of their own private worlds are nevertheless uniquely situated to pass along precious nuggets of wisdom that escape the rest of us – who can also play the fool sometimes.
Wagner’s view of the universe starts at street level, where the outcasts of society look up and out and see it all. There’s a powerful scene between two prostitutes, Brandi (Rachel Sorsa) and Tina (Julanne Chidi Hill) who are being driven around by a writer who wants to write about “the life” of big-city sex workers. It only gradually dawns on them that the journalist is going to get all the credit for telling their stories, perhaps a seminal metaphor on the way all our labor is expropriated one way or another. The author has one divorcée holding a yard sale where “everything goes,” though she does salvage the old journal that she used to keep. After all, that’s where stories are born.
It would be so easy for any person to collapse in a heap of despair at the mystery of life as we struggle, so often ineffectually, to tease out its meaning. Yet awe at the immensity of the universe can also be the germ of understanding. Taking on all of existence and seeking to find intelligence embodied somewhere in it is surely one way of defining the human purpose.
I guess it’s not too much of a spoiler to say about a play over 30 years old, that the aliens do indeed land, and guess what? They go to the theatre! But the goosebumps they feel have nothing to do with the performance on stage. They come instead from the experience of seeing an audience, a mass of strangers, laughing and crying together about the same stories. At the curtain call, the large cast applauds us for being there, for populating the human village from which all this magnificent life emerges to touch our collective hearts with kindness. It’s a triumph of art.
Aside from those named above, the cast also includes Julia Aks, Joe Hart, Kristina Johnson, Kimberly Jürgen, Bellina Logan, Jeremy Luke, Ann Noble, Sasha Pasternak, and Anny Rosario. Paula Higgins does wonders with costumes, as does Matt Richter with the sound design, Anna Waronker and Charlotte Caffey with original music and underscore, and Yusif Nasir with choreography.
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe: Unlimited runs through November 20, with performances Fri. and Sat. at 8 pm and Sun. at 7 pm. Tickets may be purchased online at www.lalgbtcenter.org/theatre or by phone at (323) 860-7300. The Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre is located at 1125 N. McCadden Place in Hollywood. Free onsite parking is available. Net proceeds from all ticket sales support the full range of free and low-cost programs and services offered by the Los Angeles LGBT Center.