The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe is a sometimes brilliant, finally tedious one-woman show badly in need of editing. Jane Wagner's script was made famous as performed by Lily Tomlin, and it starts out so promisingly you'd never guess that it eventually will test your patience and good will. But Wagner doesn't know where to stop, and at last her creation seems random, misshapen, a misuse of intellectual resources. At almost three hours, it's just too much — and that's a pity. Seldom has so much genuine insight been displayed so inefficiently.
The premise of the show is that a bag lady named Trudy is in touch with aliens who are studying, with her help, the habits of earthlings. Trudy's mind is only occasionally her own; she's not only "a linkup to extra-terrestrial channels," but also "a hookup with humanity as a whole." What this means is that at any moment she can change into some other character on earth — a rich suburbanite, a censorious grandparent, a vibrator-peddling housewife — before she regains her true self, with its own oddities and ends.
The problem is that Trudy's bounty is too copious. The housewife in Act One seems to have something to tell us; by late in Act Two, she's running on empty. There's a wonderful punk performer in Act One; but there are long sections of Act Two, featuring a dull group of female friends, which feel not only uninspired but largely unrelated to the rest of the play.
At its best, Intelligent Life suggests that the modern West is a harrowing place; at its worst, the show claims that every breath we moderns take is endlessly fascinating. Well, no, not the case. And to think you had us at hello.
Still, there are high points. Wagner's greatest strength is her love of paradox. "We could get famous and not even know it," says one character, and another suggests that "The phrase 'truth in advertising' was probably just some lie thought up by some guy in advertising." "The thought that he was dead could be the very thing that killed him," says one figure, and another tells us how very bored she was by a magazine article on the dangers of boredom.
Wagner excels also in presenting the performance piece of Agnus Angst, a 15-year-old Copernican who reminds us that "We are micro-specks on speck-ship earth." There's an effective running joke about a sperm donor named Paul, who believes that a child prodigy violinist on TV just may be his secret son; and there's aerobics student Chrissy, whose problem isn't just that she has a loose grip on reality, but that she has an even looser grip on her fantasies.
Again and again Wagner implies that contemporary life is way too much for us, that you'd have to be nuts not to go crazy. But then she weakens her argument with irrelevant characters like the prostitutes Tina and Brandy, whose big news is that johns want a sympathetic ear. Persons whom Trudy is no longer impersonating tend to come up in other characters' conversations, but in the end this seems artificial.
Still, there are some memorable jokes. My favorite goes, "If peanut oil comes from peanuts, and olive oil come from olives, where does baby oil come from?" I'll probably never forget that one.
Jonelle M. Meyer plays Trudy and 15 other characters besides, and she does a splendid job. There are segments of Act Two, though, where it's nearly impossible to remember who's who, and by then we don't very much care anyway. Christopher Rutherford's direction is topnotch, and his set design offers a garbage pail, a messy shopping cart, a wall full of post-it notes, and, hanging from the rafters, a score of umbrellas. He costumes Trudy in a trenchcoat; Meyer's acting does the rest.
So: the aliens are coming. I know just how to handle them.
We'll treat them to Act One of Intelligent Life.
And then we'll spirit them from the building while they're still on our side.
I don't know much about theater in Tampa. I only go when my gf makes…
Thanks for your response. I tried to make clear that the sex of…
Wow, wow and wow! I can see nothing but success in the Bay area theatre…
Tina: I did respond to the issues, in some detail. Please read more carefully. And…