In 1986, when Lily Tomlin won a Tony for her one-woman show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, the show was a blockbuster, critically and publicly adored. Tomlin’s wit animated the solo play’s many characters, written for and with her by her longtime partner (now wife) Jane Wagner. Tomlin’s deft comic slyness and Wagner’s quippy, heartfelt text were the right weapons for the moment — padded swords that batted their laughing audiences toward humanism and curiosity. The mood was bubbly, the content serious: Characters were by turns queer, homeless, disaffected, or devoutly feminist. Those who loved the show loved it madly, and while I never saw it, I had friends who watched the VHS of the movie version over and over and over.
Reviving Universe, though, has always been a little dicey. In 2000, Tomlin brought it back to Broadway, where the collective passion for it cooled. Tomlin’s charisma still crackled, but even adjustments to the more obviously time-stamped references couldn’t stop critics from worrying that the play seemed stale, passé, antediluvian. Now another two decades down the slippery ribbon of space-time comes the current revival. If the years between 1986 and 2000 were cruel, the years since have been homicidal. All the play’s freshness and wildness have gone, and the production at the Shed in Hudson Yards piles still more wet blankets on its head. For the remount, Tomlin and Wagner and director Leigh Silverman have chosen Saturday Night Live’s versatile, wonderful Cecily Strong to play Tomlin’s part — a casting choice that seems, on paper, to make perfect sense. Instead, it’s a trap. Strong has been lured into decaying material that now works like a tar pit: The more she struggles, the deeper she falls.
Strong walks onstage pushing a shopping cart and dressed in a flyaway wig and dirty exercise gear. This is the show’s main character, Trudy, a homeless woman who has a direct mental connection to some visiting aliens. Is she cracked? Are her “space chums” real? “I made some studies, and reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it,” Trudy says to us. “I can take it in small doses, but as a lifestyle I found it too confining.” Silverman and the rest of the creative team imagine that Trudy has been squatting in the building, so the stage is covered in the glum detritus of a theater between shows, and Trudy has nabbed a Shed staff T-shirt.
As Trudy’s mind glitches, channeling the many voices that use her as a conduit, Strong plays Agnus Angst (a 14-year-old punk who just got locked out by her father), then Kate (a bored lady-who-lunches), then a pair of prostitutes whose john wants to record their stories so he can turn them into fiction. Trudy’s patter (“Humanity’s a good, workable idea, but then you’ve got human behavior to deal with”) distracts from the danger in a lot of Wagner’s tales; several of the figures seem on the brink of disappearing — Agnus might not make it on the streets — or even suicide. The hopscotching from character to character then slows in the show’s gluey second half, which is mainly dedicated to one woman, Lyn, whose pseudo-feminist husband talks the talk but does not actually clean the sink (or honor the vows). To play these dozen roles, Strong samples widely from her box of tough-dame accents, but she lands only one joke in the show’s hour and 45 minutes. “Bob is the truest feminist I’ve ever met,” Lyn says to a friend. “He’s the only man I’ve ever known who knew where he was when Sylvia Plath died.” This got a laugh after a long stretch of uncomfortable silence. (Sylvia Plath was also the best punch line in the recent Kiki and Herb holiday cabaret, which means it’s been a big few weeks for her.)
Built for Tomlin, a performer who commands her audiences, Universe needs Strong to have more confidence, more reserve, more mystery and secret knowledge. Instead, her eyes plead, and her attempts to rally the room seem desperate. She doesn’t get much help from the production either. There are a few clever touches, as when a mimed object turns, suddenly, into a real one, but a certain gloom smothers the comedy. The set looks sad. Silverman loves to isolate Strong in blackness, the stage yawning behind her, a single burning spotlight picking her out of the cold room. In a theater, there are all sorts of darknesses. You can tell when you’re looking at one without warmth.
In that bleakness, there’s a lot of time to mull over the nature of comedy. Why has this specific piece aged so poorly? Even the uneasy mix of modern references (laptops!) and retro language (a tired person no longer describes herself as “bushed”) could be played for laughs; there’s no reason why not. But the out-of-date-ness runs deeper than the several jokes about pantyhose. Search was a zeitgeist piece — a perfect encapsulation of a certain moment — and now its zeit is gone.
There’s a danger too in being seminal. When these characters were written, they weren’t clichés. But the ’80s took this stuff and ran with it. Right around the time this show exploded, movies started crawling with wise homeless people, old-soul teens, and prostitutes with hearts of gold. When Tomlin first played Trudy, they were sparkling little gems of incongruity — who would have thought that the bag lady hearing voices was actually tapping into our shared humanity? But then we fought our way through movies like The Fisher King and Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Being reminded of that cloying, smug trend — the portrayal of mental illness as a sign of grace — is not pleasant.
Most damagingly, our appetite for certain rhythms has also changed. Wagner has a fine hand for the quotable line, which made her a hero to some: I remember those fans back in college really loved the “art or soup?” gag (in which Trudy tries to teach the aliens the difference using an Andy Warhol print), and the show’s characters often express themselves in one-liners. “I realized maybe it’s impossible to have your consciousness raised and get ahead,” says Lyn, a thought that might fit on a coffee mug if you wrapped it around once or twice. In performance today, though, all those little micro-ideas batter at our attention, chopping up the time into tiny particles, making the evening seem long. Has something changed in how we process this stuff? Did Twitter make us allergic to mottoes? Or is the love of aphorisms something that phases in and out of favor? I’m not sure. I watched this show, and with every passing minute, I found it more puzzling that there had been a time when people could love it so devoutly. What the heck was the past thinking? What a shame it’s not around anymore, or I’d ask.