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It's a new century. Are there still reasons to see Lily Tomlin?

Wednesday, Jan 9 2002
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe premiered in 1985, when the good times that supposedly swept the American middle class away from '60s idealism were still a fresh target for satire. Jane Wagner's script is crammed with all the clichés: a latchkey punk named Agnes Angst who rebels against everything. A bored, Upper East Side wife who complains about her hair. Various people going to the gym. A weightlifter who misses "the disco days" the way a hippie might miss Woodstock. A former women's-rights activist named Lyn -- the moral center of the piece and the real lens through which the audience gazes out at the other characters (Trudy, the homeless narrator, notwithstanding) -- who struggles to be Supermom.

Why revisit these battered tintypes? I know it's blasphemous to criticize Wagner and Lily Tomlin, especially during this victory-lap revival of Search, but is there anything about the 21st century that makes their mid-'80s insights all that relevant -- aside from a few good lines? "If it weren't for false hopes," says Chrissy the telemarketer, puffing on her treadmill, "the economy would just collapse." That's funnier now than it was in 1985. References to genetic engineering and "bio-form" patenting have fresh relevance, and a comment about a teacher getting shot in class now seems prescient and grim. But the baby boomer anxiety feels dated: The show's sense of careening madly into an uncertain future is gone for good. Confused young punks, artificial insemination, the decline of the left, and women juggling careers with kids are just part of the daily muddle.

On the other hand, these familiar elements make Search a sort of artifact. Lyn's long reminiscence about her evolution from activism to frazzled motherhood could be a historical document. Wagner has said in an interview that one reason for reviving Search was that post-feminist undergraduates at USC were piqued by this material, and Tomlin can still make Lyn's social whirl of child-raising, self-realization, and suicide an impassioned portrait of chaotic middle age.

Tomlin can still put juice into all the characters, in fact -- no matter how thin -- and Wagner's skill with plot is impressive. Rich and poor people from New York to California cross paths in unlikely but interesting ways. Trudy, the "bag lady" (as they were called when the show premiered) who talks to space aliens, is still the most charming member of the cast, with her ankle-rolled pantyhose and umbrella hat. ("For some reason muggers steer clear of people wearing umbrella hats.") I had forgotten she was plastered with Post-it notes bearing one-liners from either the aliens or her own unusual mind. "There's more to knowing than we can ever know," she says. And, "Earth is the only planet in the universe with a Miss Universe contest." One-liners stuff the script like straw. "If olive oil comes from olives," says another character, "and peanut oil comes from peanuts, where does baby oil come from?" Hmmm.

Trudy's philosophizing doesn't hold up very well, and neither does the character of Agnes Angst. Agnes is a teenage punk performance artist presented the way her mom would see her, spouting weird aphorisms ("I'm getting my act together and throwing it in your face!") and lame epithets ("Charlotte, you are the crumb de la crumb!"). Her theme music, for some reason, is a low grade of synthesized disco, and she sports a zipper-riddled outfit like the suits Michael Jackson used to wear. Tomlin saves this character only with the intensity of her speech at the end of Act 1, a rhyming riff on hating the world, with a swipe at G. Gordon Liddy that may be out of character for Agnes but still exposes a lesion of grief and rage.

The show moves smoothly through its familiar changes; except for a few minor edits the script hasn't been updated. Tomlin conjures all 13 characters with little more than voice and pantomime. The performance on offer at Theater on the Square is not substantially different from the one you can rent on video. Sound effects and cues are even computer-synced, so it was a welcome and somehow apt surprise on the night I saw Search when Tomlin fell behind her sound effects and had to ask the sound guy, from the stage, to rewind.


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