The opening night audience at “The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in The Universe” was immediately and enthusiastically on their feet after Cecily Strong’s ninety minute tour de force performance. Deservedly so. It’s a brisk, funny, emotional ninety minutes of Strong seamlessly slipping in and out of a dozen or so New York City characters – from our guide for the evening, Trudy, a homeless woman who’s showing her alien “space chums” around town, to a 14 year-old punk-rock performance artist, an uptown socialite, to a young feminist embarking on motherhood and more – that weave in and out of Trudy’s mind and even cross paths and interlock in surprising ways.
The Jane Wagner play debuted on Broadway in 1986 starring Lily Tomlin in a Tony-winning, blockbuster performance. Obviously a difficult act to follow, but it’s some 35 years later and Strong was born to do a show like this. Bringing all of her improv experience and years on SNL, she flawlessly executes the multiple characters and voices, sometimes speaking to each other in the same scene – and you are never confused because she is so precise. She’s also a beautifully vulnerable actress, so she gets the laughs but watch out, because she’ll have you suddenly bursting into tears with a look and turn of phrase. There are several “goosebump” moments, especially when the aliens experience their own goosebumps for the first time. The last line of the play is a doozy.
The only thing I didn’t understand were the additions to the script that “modernized” it like adding in lines about downloading, laptops and the internet. For me, it holds up as an 80’s period piece with all the references to payphones and the pop culture and politics of the time. I found those additions disorienting, distracting and just unnecessary. There is a particularly powerful moment of something seminal that happened in the 80’s that has tragic meaning in our current world, so again, I don’t think it’s necessary to bring it into the present. I think it actually lessened its power.
There’s a reason this play was such a success then and why it holds up now – its message of interconnectedness. I believe the play’s 80’s sensibilities remind us, “post” pandemic, that we are indeed all connected and what truly matters is our relationships and the love that we give and receive. There are theatre references that resonated deeply with an audience just beginning to recover from two years of being starved of live theatre.
The Leigh Silverman direction is sharp and fast-paced and special mention must be made of the incredible sound design by Jeff Gardner. Strong uses almost no props, so everything she does is brought vividly to life by her pantomime set to perfectly timed sound effects. On opening night, an apple bite was late (of course just one of hundreds of cues!) and Strong played it off so beautifully, it became a joke with the audience as she bit into the apple later in the scene. Live theatre, people! Nothing like it.
Tickets for “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” are currently on sale and start at $35. They are available through CenterTheatreGroup.org, Audience Services at (213) 628-2772 or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Offices (at the Ahmanson Theatre) at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012. Performances run Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.