In my early twenties, when I was in graduate school, I was teaching undergraduates who were only a few years younger than me. I was inexperienced, pretty unqualified, and mostly terrified. The second class I taught was “Writing About Performance.” (Perhaps this is my theater critic’s origin story.) One of my student evaluations from that semester read something like, “The syllabus included too many plays by or about women, minorities, gays, and others, but outside of that, the class was okay.” (For the record, a) Hamlet was on my syllabus, and b) though the reviews were theoretically anonymous, one recognizes handwriting and I was 95 percent certain the student who wrote that one was a young woman of color.) And I remember thinking, “Wow, if this student came away from this class not knowing how to engage as an audience member with work that complicates her worldview at all, then I have truly failed in explaining the point of writing about performance.”
I am saying all of this because that syllabus included Jane Wagner’s Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which had been performed on Broadway by Lily Tomlin a few years earlier and had been turned into a film a year or two before I taught it. The core of Signs is pretty much what I was hoping to teach: the bright recognition that the two sides of being in a room together, performers and audience sharing an experience, form the very heart of theater, and maybe even the very heart of the human condition, and if you’re not taking that context into account when you’re writing about performance (the online experiments of the past two years notwithstanding), you might as well be writing a political science paper.
A lot of times this fall, as theater came tiptoeing and then crashing back, and even more this past month, as theater started to teeter and shut down again, I have been moved to tears by the simple act of sitting in a room breathing (some days, dangerously breathing) the same air as a company of strangers; moved to tears by the very real risks that the performers are taking with their health by being in the room with me. Even shows that I’ve mostly disliked have brought with them a whole lot of joy.
Which is to say that I understand the joy at the heart of Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe in a way I didn’t when I was 23, and which my dissatisfied student assuredly didn’t. I completely understand the impulse to bring it back at this moment (performed by Cecily Strong and directed by Leigh Silverman). While the script has been revised, the basic structure remains the same. Trudy, our narrator, is a homeless, crazy, formerly successful (by conventional standards) woman who feels freed from society’s conventions by her mental breakdown. Time-sharing with her invisible space chums, she travels in a trance state into the consciousnesses of a variety of other people (in addition to Lyn and her circle of friends, characters include a punk teenage performance artist; two NYC prostitutes; a young woman who feels like she’s failing at life; a young man who once donated sperm to a lesbian couple; and a rich NYC socialite), as she and her alien friends try to figure out the meaning of life…or the mystery of life. On the grounds of validating and bringing us the joy of that simple experience, the “goose bump experience” of a group of strangers sitting together laughing and crying at the same imaginary experience, the play feels like it always has.
On other grounds, though, the piece is a harder sell. I’d wondered if it would feel dated, and it often does (more on that below; the script has been cut extensively but not updated in a thoroughgoing way), though not entirely in the ways I’d anticipated. A lot of things that fell into the category of wry humor feel like they tap into different emotions these days. I didn’t anticipate how hard the pathos of Trudy, the homeless, crazy, time-traveling narrator, would hit in a 2022 where NYC seems to have more street-homeless residents than it’s had in the 20+ years I’ve lived here and where our cultural relationship to mental illness has changed a lot in 30 years. Or how hard one of the play’s main narrative chunks, about Lyn, a woman who’s trying to have a “feminist marriage” and be successful in corporate America while still being a good mother and fight for the ERA and raise children who want to save the planet and retain her soul, would hit in a world where capitalism just keeps running more amok and the ERA never did pass and the climate crisis is ever more acute and it feels like truly, things have only gotten worse.
Strong’s talent as a performer and comedian lies in the subtle edge underneath a warm, girl-next-door normalcy, and director Leigh Silverman has wisely leaned in to this. Strong’s Trudy isn’t spikily crazy, and her characters in general are friendlier, less weird, and often more relatable than they seem on the page or as played by Tomlin. The downside is that the characters tend to blend together a bit (also partly due to the excision of a lot of detail from the script), which loses some of the sense of surprise as the connections among them start to become apparent.
This version is stripped down substantially from the published edition of the play, no doubt partly to fit it into an intermission-less 90 minutes but also largely to remove a lot of 1980s-specific cultural references that would baffle an audience now. (Though some remain; I’m not sure how many people who frequent Hudson Yards are going to recognize the mimed dialing of a payphone.) Transitions from character to character are cut too, as are several entire characters and some of the connective tissue among plot strands. The cuts make the connections between the stories feel more glancing and mysterious than a glimpse into a world populated by people who may not be entirely aware of their own interconnectedness, and that seems possibly apropos to our more atomized and solipsistic age, where that web of human connection mostly occurs with technology. But Wagner’s revisions don’t remove the mid-80s feminist ethos that’s central to a lot of the stories, and don’t entirely take the play out of time, either. So it ends up ambiguously situated in a nowhere whose anchor points are 30+ years old but whose future is post-2022.
Trudy, for example, in talking about her previous life, notes that she invented the TV laugh track and the L’eggs pantyhose egg, which reference might have made an audience member think quizzically about her age in 1984, but would make her at least 50 years older than Cecily Strong now. Lyn, the struggling wife and mother, is fighting for the ERA; perky yet depressed Chrissy is doing aerobics; prostitutes Brandy and Tina are just considering making a switch to phone sex; rich women are leafing through magazines while they get their hair cut, not scrolling Twitter. (Trump Tower, in fact, is still a spot for glamorous hair salons, not the home of a dangerous ex-president.) Yet rather than being on a street corner, Trudy locates herself in an empty theater in Hudson Yards (Mary Hamrick and Christine Jones’s set design uses a lighting genie and a big speaker to indicate the setting), a “neighborhood” that has only existed for a few years, and Trudy’s time-and-space-jumping alien friends have more than a passing acquaintance with Elon Musk.
I wish this production had perhaps let the characters live in the time and place from which they arose. The feeling of limbo may be thematically appropriate, but the play suffers from skirting around the thirty-year gap without acknowledging it. We may be in the here and now, technically, but the years between 1990 and 2020 seem to have vanished into the space-time ether along with Trudy’ space chums, and perhaps it’s just the fact that those years so perfectly span my adulthood that makes me so conscious of the gap, and of how much the world changed during it. If, as Wagner says, “The play was soup…the audience art”–the art remains, but it would be nice if the soup were piping hot.