The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

I refuse to be intimidated by reality anymore," announces Trudy, the Bag Lady, one of 14 gloriously eccentric characters established by Lily Tomlin during her famous one-woman play at the Ahmanson. The star positions herself against an enormous, glittering galactic backdrop, re-creating theuniverse she first unveiled on Broadway in 1985.

With:
With: Lily Tomlin.

I refuse to be intimidated by reality anymore,” announces Trudy, the Bag Lady, one of 14 gloriously eccentric characters established by Lily Tomlin during her famous one-woman play at the Ahmanson. The line elicits a roar of recognition, but Tomlin’s genius is her clear-eyed projection of reality and truth even when the people she portrays are lonely, confused or unable to cope. The star positions herself against an enormous, glittering galactic backdrop and overpowers her vast surroundings, re-creating the formidable universe she first unveiled on Broadway in September 1985.

Some of the specific references in Jane Wagner’s script are rooted in the past. This production illustrates that familiar social details can remain fresh if the story’s emotional base is relevant to new generations. When health-conscious Chrissy moans, “I’ve gained and lost the same 10 pounds so many times my cellulite must have deja vu,” every dieter in the world can relate. Equally timeless is a mother’s cry when looking at her infant twins, “I’m amazed at the love I feel . . . and then they wake up.”

Trudy, fueled by extraterrestrial powers through her umbrella hat, can see into the lives of Tomlin’s screwball creations, and she introduces us to Kate, one of the best characters — a cynical socialite, dying of boredom, who lost a fingertip in her Cuisinart. Tomlin lowers her voice to convey Kate’s world weariness. Her dramatic vocal range hits wonderful notes, from the strident youthful hysteria that defines 15-year-old punk performance artist Agnus Angst to the elderly tones emanating from Agnus’ befuddled grandparents Lud and Marie.

Moving from upper middle class heroines, Tomlin hits the streets in her interpretations of two hookers, Brandi and Tina. Tina’s thoughtfully rendered reflection, “The first thing you learn after fellatio is how to listen,” is unforgettable, matched by her tale about helping a young, frightened hustler through beauty school. This sequence gains from Tom Clark and Mark Bennett’s highly convincing background rainfall, one of many outstanding sound contributions. Ken Billington’s lustrous lighting makes the production far more visually interesting than most one-person shows.

Identity crises dominate a perceptive, if lengthy, second act, centering largely on Lyn, a feminist who weds soulmate Bob and becomes immersed in a world of self-improvement seminars, TM centers, transcendental trout fishing, body awareness and rape crisis hot lines. The narcissistic wailings of those trying to find themselves is always funny, but they would seem dated if not for the honest, tragic underpinnings planted by Wagner and Tomlin. Lyn’s friend Marge dies, Agnus disappears, and Lyn’s husband Bob has an affair that wrecks her marriage. There’s genuine pathos when Tomlin’s Lyn says, “my husband’s in love with this woman who’s quite a bit younger than I am.” Or in her rueful realization, “If I had known what it would be like to have it all, I might have settled for less.”

Tomlin’s gestures are as vital as her speech. Whether balancing on her heels, slapping hands on hips, tapping her forehead, hitting her knees or dancing, she sustains a sense of constant movement. Most important, she mines the humor from her characters without ridiculing them or distancing herself from their dilemmas. She always seems to be saying, “This is me and this is you, and we’ll work our way through it together,” and by the end, our feelings have hit a peak that she describes in the finale as “awe infinitum.”

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

Ahmanson Theater; 1,600 seats; $60 top

Production: A Tomlin and Wagner Theatricalz presentation of a play in two acts by Jane Wagner and performed by Lily Tomlin. Directed by Jane Wagner. Sets, Klara Zieglerova; lighting, Ken Billington; sound, Tom Clark and Mark Bennett. Opened and reviewed May 21, 2003; runs through July 6. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast: With: Lily Tomlin.

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