Saturday Night Live star Cecily Strong has taken on a very big task: stepping into the shoes of Lily Tomlin who created all the roles in Jane Wagner’s iconic feminist one-woman play, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, and won the Tony Award for Best Actress back in 1985. The new production directed by Leigh Silverman now at The Shed’s Griffin Theater had been reworked and revised by Wagner. Among the changes are a shortened running time, the elimination of the intermission and several characters, and some updated references such as Elon Musk, climate change and shrinking ice for the polar bears.
Her nine years on SNL would seem excellent preparation for Search which requires her to portray ten different characters alternately. However, although Strong has tremendous stage presence, she has not yet grown into all of the roles or given all of the characters (nine women and one man) distinct, separate voices. While still a tour de force for one performer, the play seems dated after 37 years with one scene using a coin pay phone and several references to the Equal Right Amendment (ERA), neither of which are in common parlance anymore. On some level, a good deal of the play takes place in the past (Betty Friedan, LSD, Rupert Murdoch, “I mean the Women’s Movement isn’t that old,” etc.) but as no years or dates are mentioned, it feels like it is taking place now which seems like a mistake. Without the intermission, the show presents too many stories to take in all at one sitting.
Wagner’s collection of quirky, well-drawn characters are interesting with the play mainly divided between Trudy, our guide in New York, a street philosopher, a bag woman who thinks she is in touch with aliens from another planet, in the first half, and in the second half, Lyn, a Los Angeles woman who attends the local TM Center, volunteers for a Rape Crisis Hot Line, is into EST Training, does PR for a clothing chain which may or may not be exploiting cheap labor, finds an ultra sensitive husband Bob, and is ultimately the mother of twins Robert and McCord who are quite a handful. We meet a great many of her friends, Edie (a radical lesbian who is a columnist), Marge (the owner of a plant store) and hear about Edie’s partner Pam, a shrink; Daniel, Marge’s on again, off again boyfriend; and Edie and Pam’s music prodigy son Ivan. Each has a very different view of the world and the women’s movement.
Among the characters that Strong portrays are the teen punk poet Agnus Angst, the outspoken prostitutes Tina and Brandy, and the gym rat Paul who wonders “what’s the point of being a health nut by day and a coke head at night.” The scenes take place in a beauty salon, an aerobics exercise class, an underground performance art club and a geodesic dome, among other urban spots. The witty and wise remarks include “I worry that yesterday’s culture shock is today’s reality check,” “It’s hard to be politically conscious and upwardly mobile at the same time,” and “How naive to think there was a time when we actually thought we were going to change the system, and all the time … the system was changing us.” However, it is Trudy who believes herself to be crazy who offers the wisest advice, and also tells us that it is the aliens who are searching for signs of intelligent life in the universe.
The minimalist production is a bit of a problem. Aside from a rolling white laundry basket no other props or scenery are used. It is difficult to know what co-set designers Mary Hamrick and Christine Jones contributed though on the far sides of the stage are objects like a fork-lift and a ladder which have nothing to do with the play. Strong wears one costume by Anita Yavich, although she does remove a raincoat and put it back on later. Not only is it difficult to picture all of the characters but in scenes where two are talking, it is hard to know which is which. The most successful element is the sound design by Elisheba Ittoop (who also composed the original music) which does a good deal of the work of setting time and place. The subtle lighting by Stacey Derosier mostly works. The scene changes are punctuated by sound and light cues.
The new production of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe will be enjoyed most by people who have not seen it before and will speak to women who have had similar thoughts about their lives and roles in American society. Making her New York stage debut, Cecily Strong is a forceful performer but appears to need more time to grow into these many characters. She does have three more weeks of the run to become more comfortable with the material.
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (through February 6, 2022)
Griffin Theater at The Shed, 545 West 30th Street, Hudson Yards, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-455-3494 or visit http://www.theshed.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission