Post image for Off-Broadway: THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE (Opening at The Shed)

by Tony Frankel on November 5, 2021

in Theater-New York


Is there life after Lily Tomlin? The Shed, the cool new space for theater and art in Hudson Yards, is about to prove that question with a resounding “yes”. Beginning December 21, 2021, a newly commissioned production of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, freshly revisited by playwright Jane Wagner, and staged by Tony-nominated director Leigh Silverman (Lifespan of a Fact, Violet), the iconic play will star Cecily Strong (Saturday Night LiveSchmigadoon!) in her theatrical debut. James Alsop (“Girls 5 Eva”) will choreograph. Opening night is January 11, 2022 at the Shed’s intimate 500-seat Griffin Theater (545 West 30th Street). Tickets are now on sale.

Written for Tomlin, who won the 1986 Best Actress Tony for the original production, Wagner’s one-woman play, which she also directed, ran for 391 performances on Broadway; I caught it soon thereafter in 1987 in L.A. The play 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 Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner’s hallmark. (Partners for almost half a century, Jane and Lily — who tied the knot 7 years ago — met in 1971 when they created my favorite comedy album, This Is a Recording.)

The universal truths of this play remain astoundingly fresh. This protean entertainment covers a host of contemporary dislocations and dilemmas, in effect reproducing the modern world in a dozen voices. 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.

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”).

A derivative of the Reagan Era, 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. You most likely will notice how startling Wagner’s notions were in the mid-eighties (“At the point where you can comprehend how incomprehensible it all is, you’re about as smart as you need to be”); most remain radical to this day. It’s truly masterful writing.

Cecily Strong. (Photo by Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC.)

“I was 11 years old when I first had my mind blown by Lily Tomlin’s iconic performance,” said Silverman. “It is not overstatement or hyperbolic to say I am a director because of the transformational magic I experienced that night and which can only happen in the theater.   And in the painful depths of the pandemic, when there was no theater, and in the abyss of my own search for the ‘why’ I picked up my well-worn copy. And suddenly knew it was the play I wanted to direct, that we would all desperately need to see when (or if) we would ever be shoulder to shoulder laughing again. We would be so thirsty for Wagner’s brilliant musings on humanity, the goosebumps and the ‘awe-robics.’ And then I met Cecily Strong. who is both the obvious comedic descendent of Lily Tomlin and also a totally unique voice and an accomplished, fearless actress.”

The creative team includes Christine Jones and Mary Hamrick (Co-Set Design), Anita Yavich (Costume Design), Stacey Derosier (Lighting Design), Elisheba Ittoop (Sound Designer/Composer), Justin Scribner (Production Stage Manager).  Lily Tomlin, who originated the role, serves as executive producer with Wagner.

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe
The Shed
The Griffin Theater, 545 West 30th Street
December 21, 2021 – February 6, 2022
performances begin on December 21, 2021
opening night is January 11, 2022
for tickets, visit The Shed

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