Home » ‘Search for Signs of Intelligent Life’ Falls Short Despite Strong’s Effort

‘Search for Signs of Intelligent Life’ Falls Short Despite Strong’s Effort

Intelligent Life

“The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” now playing at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, falls short despite the enthusiastic effort from Cecily Strong. The show is a revival of the Tony-winning Lily Tomlin tour-de-force from the ‘80s, and it is hard not to compare Strong’s genial charm with Tomlin’s quirky appeal.

The show was created for Tomlin by her long-time partner (now wife) Jane Wagner. Besides earning a Tony in 1986 and playing the role(s) on Broadway for a year then, Tomlin starred in a film version in 1991 and a Broadway revival in 2000. Strong is not new to the material either. The revival she is in was first mounted in New York City earlier this year.

“The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” is a one-woman show. That concept reflects the cast. However, it does not do service to the oddball assortment of characters that have to be portrayed (and differentiated) in the show by one person.

On “Saturday Night Live,” Strong is used to bouncing from one skit and character to another. That skill is needed as the solo cast member in a play requiring her to physically transform rapidly and convincingly between 11 characters. It is an impressive feat, and replacing Tomlin’s genius timing and expressiveness adds to the difficulty.

Strong is game. She holds the audience’s attention while morphing from one character to the next with slight costume changes, some physicality, and her voice. However, she does not differentiate enough between the various roles. Her own appealing personality shines through each. At times, the characters are hard to tell apart without carefully listening for names or references used in the dialogue.

Parade of CharactersIntelligent Life

The main character is Trudy, a homeless “bag lady.” Trudy relates that her extraterrestrial friends have come to Earth to observe human life, at least the New York City version of it, and look for signs of intelligence. Trudy wears a trench coat with innumerable Post-Its affixed to the lining that have various terms and observations on them.

Other personas in Strong’s effort in “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life” fall a little short. There’s an unemployed character complaining, “No matter what kind of job you have, it’s got to be easier work than looking for one.” The others include a teen punk-rock performance artist, a male gym rat, a socialite, a bored housewife, and a young feminist among others.

Some characters appear and appeal more than others. The lives seem disparate, and the audience is left to try to figure out the connections. Perhaps Trudy sums it up when she asks, “What is reality anyway? Nothin’ but a collective hunch.” The collective audience needs a hunch as they try to piece it together.

Attempts to Modernize Message

The play’s script has been shortened from the original. Directed by Leigh Silverman, the current version is 90 minutes, but felt longer. The threads connecting each persona and their tales become increasingly evident, but it seems to take a long time getting there.

“The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life” dialogue was updated in places. References to downloading and streaming attempt to bring it into today’s reality, but they do not add any new meaning or synergy with the rest of the material. There are still references to Jazzercise, geodesic domes, and other 80s things. The lack of reality and many aspects of the play are timeless. Yet, the show felt dated. Even Trudy’s reliance on Post-Its to remember everything seems odd versus today’s more common dictating notes to a cell phone. However, it does add to that character’s eccentricity.

Sound Effort

One outstanding aspect of the show is the sound design by Jeff Gardner; yes, the sound design. Except for the Post-Its, Strong does not use props. Instead, she mimics actions, and the sound effects brings them to life. For example, she mimes biting into an apple and the audience hears the crunch (except on opening night when the cue was off) or she closes an imaginary gym locker, and everyone at the theatre hears it. It is not clear if Strong’s moves cue the sound effect of the sound effect triggers the motion. But, the sounds definitely add to Strong’s performance. “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life” starring Cecily Strong will be at the Mark Taper Forum through Oct. 23.

Opening night at the Mark Taper Forum, Strong was excited to announce during the curtain call “one very special person who’s here tonight” the original Trudy. Strong’s enthusiasm about the effort of performing “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life” in front of Lily Tomlin was clear and did not fall short.

 

Written by Dyanne Weiss

 

Sources:

Performance Sept. 28

Center Theatre Group

New York Times: Continuing ‘The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe’

 

Photo by Craig Schwartz of Cecily Strong performing in “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” currently playing in Los Angeles at the Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum.

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