The most striking aspect of Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin’s “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” which has returned to Broadway 15 years after its enthusiastic initial reception, is the warmth given off by the show itself. Cruel humor is easy; it’s harder to mine laughter from the human comedy without using the handy weapon of contempt. There’s something magical about a show that can bring you to tears of laughter and sympathy at virtually the same moment.
“Search” has not been extensively revised, but even theatergoers who saw the original production, also directed by Wagner and starring Tomlin, will find much to rejoice at in its return. Wagner’s aphoristic humor retains its bite, and Tomlin still invests her virtuosic performance with frazzled charm, sly intelligence and the energy of a dozen acrobats.
Once again, the audience will be particularly fond of Trudy, perhaps the most lovable of the many characters Tomlin evokes without the aid of props or clothing, costumed only in Ken Billington’s lovely lighting. Trudy is a bag lady savant and “creative consultant,” she tells us in a furtive growl, to aliens from outer space who are looking for the commodity referred to in the show’s title.
She herself is a tattered repository of human wisdom, all collated and arranged on Post-It notes. “We got new evidence as to what motivated man to walk upright: to free his hands for masturbation” is one example, or, “I personally think we developed language because of our deep inner need to complain.” The superior insight of the mad is a hoary, somewhat sentimental notion, but Tomlin and Wagner’s Trudy is a character who gruffly and grittily transcends cliche.
Shock treatments have left Trudy with a “hook-up to humanity” through her umbrella hat, and through this device she channels most of the rest of the characters in the show. They’re an endearing assemblage of malcontents and misfits who are united by, above all else, disappointment with the hands life has dealt them.
Chrissy, seen primping at her gym, is a chronically unemployed young woman who’s on an endless and fruitless quest for happiness through self-improvement. “All my life I wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific,” she laments. Teenage Agnus Angst is a caterwauling, aspiring performance artist who is the bane of her grandparents’ existence. They are Marie and Lud, an affectionately cantankerous pair who comfortably blame each other for the wrong turns life has taken. From the upper strata comes the terminally blase Kate: “It’s one thing to tolerate a boring marriage, but a boring affair does not make sense.”
All Wagner’s characters stumble or stray into each other’s path at some point in the show. She envisions humanity as a web of surprising and unlikely interconnections — in its own more diffuse way the show illustrates the same idea that inspired John Guare’s masterwork “Six Degrees of Separation” some years later.
The show’s overlong second act is more unwieldy, as Wagner concentrates on a separate constellation of people surrounding Lynn, an exhausted victim of the ever-popular idea that women can and should try to have it all: husband, career, kids, raised consciousness.
Somewhat dated even in 1985, Wagner’s tender but acerbic examination of the foibles of the feminist movement seems positively antediluvian today (what was the ERA again?); it also feels like a separate piece of writing shoehorned into the larger frame of the show. But like the superior first act, it’s marked by an extraordinary empathy that begins in Wagner’s writing and is embodied by the protean Tomlin.
With its heartfelt attention to people left in the shallow waters of American success, the show definitely feels like a byproduct of the Reagan ’80s. But this doesn’t mean it has lost its inspirational power. Indeed, 15 years later audience members who marched at AIDS rallies and fought for the rights of the homeless are probably now worrying about IPOs and 401Ks, while their spiritual heirs may be intent on making a dot-com killing. This exceptional piece of theater is a salutary reminder that a civilization’s health may best be measured not by the cumulative wealth of its citizens but by the community of feeling that binds them together — something worth pondering in these fractious days.