Think of a piece of wallpaper whose edge in the upper corner has come loose from insufficient or incompetent glue. Now you see the plaster underneath.
That image could occur to you when you attend THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE and see the program’s front cover.
As expected, it’s dominated by a four-inch wide, five-inch tall picture of the very talented Cecily Strong, whom some know from SHMIGADOON and more from SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. She’ll perform the one-woman show devised by Jane Wagner more than a third-of-a-century ago.
However, that photo, as well as the title of the show, is not all you’ll see on that cover. In the upper right-hand corner is a one-inch wide, one-inch long flap peeled and hanging down as detached wallpaper does. It reveals a tiny picture of Lily Tomlin.
In fact, it’s the actual photograph used on the 1985 and 2000 Playbills for Tomlin’s productions of THE SEARCH.
Why bring up Tomlin and have her looming over Strong? After all, what’s on view here at The Shed (a new space at 545 West 30th Street) is Wagner’s script and Strong’s performance (with, of course, at least a little help from her friend and director Leigh Silverman).
Strong is an appealing personality. She’s warm, cheery and with a wide smile for which many whitening toothpaste companies would love to take credit. She adds expansive gestures and eyeballs that go back and forth with the speed of a Ping-Pong match. Faced with dozens of sound effects that demand that Strong coordinate her movements pin-perfectly precisely to each one, she manages to do superbly time and time again.
And yet, Tomlin’s picture can only remind those who saw her (or those who wanted to) that a greater star once did this show. Comparisons, as they say, are odious; making an unnecessary one is simply stupid.
However, given that this program cover has, shall-we-say, entered Tomlin into evidence, any comparisons are now admissible.
The first character is Trudy, the self-described bag lady who once had a career before dropping out of society. Despite what she is now, she is still similar to the less fortunate but savvy and wily characters that Plautus and Moliere ocne wrote.
“People look at my shopping bags and call me crazy ‘cause I save this junk,” Trudy dryly says. “What should we call the ones why buy it?”
Truly continues with some equally trenchant observations. Tomlin truly inhabited the character; Strong settles for stand-up comedy. Seeing a sincere and centered Trudy who doesn’t go for laughs when she speaks would be more on target. Tomlin made Trudy inadvertently funny by making her unaware of how natively humorous she is. Strong, though, does a routine that may make you feel you should have a drink in your hand while watching her at Caroline’s Comedy Club.
For that matter, Strong, presumably with the blessing of Wagner (and perhaps even Tomlin), doesn’t attempt to do the entire baker’s dozen of characters that her predecessor did. What had been a two-hour-and-20-minute show now weighs in at 95 intermissionless minutes.
Many sketches seem to have been dropped because they contained once-topical references that have since dated: David Bowie, Debbie Boone, Geraldine Ferraro, Patty Hearst, Howard Johnson’s and its fried clams, Whole Earth catalogues, The Peter Principle and Xerox as a verb. (Don’t know a few? That’s what Google is for.)
Why one certain phrase was retained is mysterious: “pantyhose in a plastic egg.” Women have pretty much abandoned that legwear and L’eggs, the company that put its products in those faux-eggs, long ago switched to cardboard boxes.
However, any dropped sketch could have been preserved with now-topical references replacing the dated ones. (Damon Albarn for David Bowie, e.g.)
Were entire playlets dropped because Strong was only willing to do a half-marathon to Tomlin’s full one?
“In the future, they’ll still be writing about the future.” Wagner can even detail a suicide and get a genuine laugh from the audience.
Anyway, Elon Musk and GPS help to bring the script into today.
Omitting the intermission was a mistake. Yes, we all like to get home 15 minutes earlier, but THE SEARCH is in essence two one-act shows – or, more accurately, one one-act show and one one-act play. The first half (when it HAD halves) was pretty much a series of visits to seemingly unrelated characters. The second half was much more often a genuine look at the lives of three female friends – Lyn, Edie and Marge – who went in some of the same directions but with markedly different results. Wagner does offer a coda where some of the “first act” characters interact, but by and large, these are two separate works.
Because Strong is not as potent in creating distinctly different entities, theatergoers might not realize that they’re seeing new characters when she suddenly brings them friends into the mix, (Projections on the back wall might have been a good investment.) A few minutes must pass before enough dialogue shows us that attendees that they’re in new territory.
You may not mind so much, for there are so many choice Wagnerisms that will get you to respond with everything from smiles to chuckles to guffaws. One of the best has Lyn, a woman who wanted the proverbial “all” – career, husband and children (and had twins) – now dryly says “If I’d only know this is what it would be like to ‘have it all,’ I might have been willing to settle for less.”
That Strong doesn’t give another marvelous line enough punch is regrettable. Such a gem as “The worse part of dying is that your whole life flashes before you” deserves to have you nod and to think about the lifetime of horrors that you wouldn’t want to see again. Strong tosses off the line so matter-of-factly that she seems to feel it doesn’t much matter.
Indeed it does.
These two lines, great as they are, however, are just warm-ups for the show’s conclusion. Wagner indeed saves the best for last.
We’ve all had the experience of seeing the entire cast of a play or musical at a curtain call applaud us: the audience. That’s a terrific and generous gesture, but Wagner finds a much stronger way to show her gratitude. However, you’d understand it better if you know about Andy Warhol and his hyper-realistic drawing of a Campbell’s soup can that jumpstarted pop art literally 50 years ago.
Here, as has been the case in the four previous productions I’ve seen, when Wagner’s words are unleashed, some audience members sigh an audible “Awwwww” in appreciation.
Strong delivers them very well – very well indeed. But when you leave The Shed, you’ll be pardoned if you glance at that program cover, once again notice that tiny picture and say “Gee, I wonder how Lily Tomlin would have done it?”