There wasn't a more lauded theatrical production in all of the 1980s than playwright/director Jane Wagner's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which served as the ultimate vehicle for Wagner's multitalented life partner and collaborator, Lily Tomlin. Fifteen years later, Tomlin has blossomed into an even more impressive theatre artist, and Wagner's writing has aged gracefully, as The Search is renewed at Seattle Repertory Theatre, in association with McCarter Theatre, on the road to a November 2000 Broadway revival. Despite a respectable film incarnation, this is The Search as it was meant to be seen, and it's a helluva great journey.
Tomlin has always been able to create a maximum of character with a minimum of costuming and makeup to assist her. In The Search, Wagner crafted a microcosm of society, with all its foibles, fantasies, and failings for Tomlin to enact. Her central character and most lovable creation is Trudy, an admittedly crazy bag lady, who is playing host to visiting aliens who are fascinated by such things as the difference between Campbell's soup and Warhol's artistic depiction of it. Weaving in and out of Trudy's existence, whether peripherally or directly, are Agnus Angst, a 15-year-old performance artist ("We are micro-specks on the speck-ship Earth"); her Grandparents Lud and Marie; jaded socialite Kate; hookers Tina and Brandy (Tomlin plays both characters concurrently and distinctly); a trio of old friends, Edie, Marge, and Lyn, whose paths have gone separate ways, and several others.
Wagner's direction is seamless; her script is that rare combination of humor, heart, and intelligence, and nobody can write to Tomlin's strengths any better. Tomlin is at the top of her form here, tirelessly energetic, fiercely funny, and always a keen observer of what Saroyan called The Human Comedy. The saga of Lyn, Edie, and Marge is definitely the most moving piece of the show, Tina and Brandy are an incredibly amusing double-take, and Trudy is perhaps the best linking character ever devised for a one-person show.
Though some may wish Tomlin and Wagner had trod new ground here, a revival this good needs no apologies and is a great opportunity to savor the art of their collaborative genius, anew or for the first time.
The production is also blessed with an inspired, brilliantly used sound design by G. Thomas Clark and Mark Bennett, an extraordinarily fine lighting design by Ken Billington, and a marvelous, minimalist scenic design by Klara Zieglerova, which suggests just enough, then lets Tomlin fill in the rest. If you saw the film version of The Search and think you needn't see it live, think again, for this is the way to experience the theatrical genius of Tomlin and Wagner.
"The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe" at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer Street, Seattle. Tues-Fri. 7:30 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sept. 12-Oct. 7. $10-45. (206) 443-2222.