Los Angeles Theater Review: THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE: REVISITED (Davidson/Valenti Theatre in Hollywood)

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by Tony Frankel on October 20, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles


Is there life after Lily Tomlin? Producer Jon Imparato is attempting to find out: under his auspices, the Los Angeles LGBT Center is reviving The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Written for Tomlin, who won the 1986 Best Actress Tony for the original production, Jane Wagner’s one-woman play, which she also directed, ran for 391 performances on Broadway; I caught it soon thereafter here in L.A. at the Doolittle Theater in 1987.


The bigger question is: Can this much-praised script work if Wagner reworks it for a 12-person cast, 10 women and 2 men? After all, there isn’t a line in her script that wasn’t written with Tomlin in mind. The show is a collection of characters whose interwoven stories–all tied together by Trudy the bag lady–entertain and enlighten in an impressive pageant of humanity that combines the outrageous humor, social commentary, and moving human drama that are Tomlin and Wagner’s hallmark. (Partners for 44 years, Jane and Lily–who tied the knot 2 years ago–met in 1971 when they created my favorite comedy album, This Is a Recording.)

The good news is that, given some rich portrayals, especially in the second act, the universal truths of this play, subtitled Revisited, lose little in translation. Though a few actors lack Tomlin’s whiplash delivery, others put their own gleeful mark on such seemingly impregnable Tomlin turns as world-weary, poor little rich girl Kate, played here by the daunting, fierce Ann Noble.


At its best Search has value as a sort of time capsule: This protean entertainment covers a host of contemporary dislocations and dilemmas, in effect reproducing the modern world in a dozen voices. True, the script can seem self-consciously glib and epigrammatic (and all the more so given some actors offering a cartoonlike naturalism), but it remains remarkable how Wagner keeps the character humor from spinning off into star-turn self-indulgence by constantly connecting her characters in satisfying, even astonishing ways.

Unfortunately, the comedic chemistry that is Wagner and Tomlin goes missing in much of the first act, which never really finds its stride. Director Ken Sawyer has his hands full on this one. Instead of Tomlin moving effortlessly from one character to another, the very tiny stage at the Davidson/Valentini Theatre can feel crowded; there are some cramped or unmotivated entrances and exits, disrupting the flow of the piece. Sawyer also uses hundreds of his own sound effects, but they don’t help to create a sense of time and space, and frankly much of the mime prop work lacks sharpness (Mo Gaffney, instructor). And for some odd reason (to block actors coming and going, perhaps?), the normally perfect Stephanie Kerley Schwartz hangs a curtain that—from my vantage point audience right—blocks the upstage multimedia and stage left action.


The most lovable of the characters is Trudy, a happily crazed bag lady and creative consultant to extraterrestrials. This narrator dressed in umbrella hat, rolled-down panty hose, and upside-down wig (to keep it clean), speaks directly to us. Significantly, she’s the one character who’s out of touch with reality–and the happiest (“Reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it”). Charlotte Gulezian is as very likeable as her character, but she seems too young for the philosophizing woman who has departed a life in Corporate America.

Subject to trances induced by remote control, Trudy erupts into, among other characters, Agnus (Sasha Pasternak, big at the start with nowhere to go), an angry 15-year-old punker who is articulate in her rage against being born into a botched world (“I look at my family, I feel like a detached retina”). Confused by Agnus’s post-everything alienation–but unable to turn it into performance art as she does–are her addlepated grandparents, Lud (Joe Hart) and Marie (Kimberly Jürgen).


Other searchers include a desperately chirpy fitness nut, Chrissy (Julia Aks), and another athlete, Paul (Jeremy Luke), who is haunted by a child he hasn’t met. Immensely enjoyable and truly funny are two Manhattan hookers, Brandi (Rachel Sorsa) and Tina (Julanne Chidi Hill), who are interviewed by an unseen writer about “The Life.”

But since it’s not Trudy morphing into these other characters, the very basis of the original play is lost—as is some of its magic. It’s also tougher to get on board for Act I because this half is episodic and briefly introduces various characters who are eventually woven into the more linear story in Act II, which works far better.


Most of the second act is a sort of fast-forward Heidi Chronicles that draws three new characters into a web of endangered sisterhood. Taking place during the ERA fervor, this is the tale of bisexual career woman Lyn (an indefatigable and vulnerable Kristina Johnson), a lady who wants it all–and gets it, but not in the best way. Take, for example, her disastrous marriage to Bob, a caring new-age man who proves more sensitive to his geodesic-dome house and isolation tank than to anyone around him. Bonding with Lyn are Edie (Anny Rosario), a fiery lesbian feminist whose one joy is the violinist son she conceived through artificial insemination, and disco-crazy Marge (Bellina Logan), who was once raped, has never recovered, and is now burned out on booze.

Though Wagner almost buries this long sequence under an avalanche of past cultural icons, she never indulges in the cheap laugh that dulls the necessary pain. Refusing to mourn the women’s movement, Wagner depicts these three as battered believers in an equality that eludes them. And because there aren’t so many character changes, Sawyer seems more capable of telling a story than in the first act.


Search is a time capsule in another way: The show feels a bit dated, a derivative of the Reagan Era. But it’s a nostalgic dated for me: There’s an intense dedication in the piece to those who struggle for individuality, meaning and success, holdover ideals from the 70s that taught me how to deal with the AIDS crisis. I was reminded on opening night how startling Wagner’s notions were in 1987 (“At the point where you can comprehend how incomprehensible it all is, you’re about as smart as you need to be”); some remain radical to this day. It’s truly masterful writing.


sfs_cast_pic_ken_sawyerphotos by Ken Sawyer

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life
in the Universe: Revisited

Davidson/Valentini Theatre
The L.A. LGBT Center/
The Village at Ed Gould Plaza
1125 N. McCadden Place in Hollywood
ends on November 20, 2016
EXTENDED to December 11, 2016
for tickets, call 323-860-7300
or visit LA Gay Center

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