HomeFeaturedReview: SNL’s Cecily Strong takes on beloved one woman show
Review: SNL’s Cecily Strong takes on beloved one woman show
September 30, 2022
A lifetime ago, when I was still living in New York, I had dinner with the comedian Sandra Bernhard and a mutual friend. Having been a fan of her uncategorizable cabarets, I said I’d love to see her take her act to Broadway one day. With characteristic frankness, she replied that for that to happen she’d need what Lily Tomlin was lucky enough to have — her own Jane Wagner.
Bernhard’s remark resounded in my head while watching the sluggish new revival of Wagner’s “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” at the Mark Taper Forum. The one-woman show, in which Tomlin triumphed on Broadway in 1985, has been adapted for Cecily Strong, one of the bright lights of “Saturday Night Live” for the last 10 years.
The problem is one a tailor might instantly recognize. A theatrical garment custom made for one performer is never going to fit another quite as well, no matter how extensive the alterations.
I was a staunch fan of Tomlin’s sketch comedy in my youth. Whenever “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” was shown on television in the 1970s, I’d wait breathlessly for an appearance of Edith Ann, the defiantly philosophical 5-and-a-half-year-old in the giant rocking chair, or Ernestine, the bullying telephone operator, whose “one ringy-dingy” and passive-aggressive snort were my idea of comedy heaven. A chameleon with a sneaky subversive streak, Tomlin contained madcap multitudes.
In “The Search for Signs,” Wagner provided an elaborate showcase for the wide range of Tomlin’s gifts as both a beloved comedian and an actor who had been nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Robert Altman’s “Nashville.” The play is filled with outlandish characters — most conspicuously, Trudy, the bag lady, who has lost her mind and in the process has made contact with space aliens curious about higher consciousness on Earth.
But ironic social commentary is interwoven with the broader shtick. The humor represents a perfect marriage of Wagner’s observational wit and Tomlin’s dry madness. Trudy asks, “What is reality anyway? Nothin’ but a collective hunch.” The voice behind these words belongs to one of the more ruminative partnerships in contemporary comedy.
Strong approaches the kookier characters — Chrissy, the aerobics fanatic perpetually trying to buck up her paltry self-esteem; Agnus, the angst-ridden “punk poet kid” lashing out at the world that spurns her; Kate, the Manhattan socialite suffering from terminal ennui at a hair salon — with a less exaggerated touch. Silliness is kept at bay but at the cost of delirious momentum.
Male figures make strutting cameos, but the play is dedicated to surveying a limited cross-section of women. These characters are flecked with pathos but engineered for laughs.
By playing up their most ostentatious quirks, Tomlin differentiated this parade of misfits and strays for her audience. Strong normalizes these soul searchers by endowing each with aspects of her own genial personality. Their caricatured edges are sanded off, but they begin to blend together in a compassionate blur.
Wagner condensed the play into one act for this revival, which had its premiere late last year at the Shed in New York. The rewrite focuses on material in the original version’s deeper second half. When we first encounter Lyn, she’s riding into the future with the women’s movement, alongside Edie and Marge, her best friends and support system. The Supreme Court’s landmark decision legalizing abortion has empowered this sisterhood, but progress doesn’t live up to its heady promise.
Edie, a radical lesbian journalist who’s fired after Rupert Murdoch buys her newspaper, is working on a book, “What’s Left of the Left.” Marge, who is grappling with the aftermath of a rape, develops a drinking problem and comes to a macabre end with a macramé planter.
Desperate to balance a meaningful career with being a wife and mother, Lyn finds herself oppressed by the self-preening sensitivity of her husband, whose personal ethics aren’t as spotless as his political commitments. Lyn’s epiphany — “If I’d known this is what it would be like to have it all, I might have been willing to settle for less” — encapsulates the journey from the hopeful days of the liberation movement to the consumerism and grasping individualism that depressingly followed.
Strong brings a radiant humanity to this roller coaster of history. The warmth of her smile invites you to experience the lives behind these theatrical snapshots. But the writing can’t withstand Chekhovian scrutiny. The zaniness at the heart of the show is unnecessarily muffled.
The production, directed by Leigh Silverman, is touching and a little boring. The scenic design by Christine Jones and Mary Hamrick — consisting of a carpeted stage, two cubes and an unmagical arc of lights — has a deadening effect. Strong might as well be performing in a finished basement.
Sound effects are used instead of props. At Wednesday’s opening, there was a miscue late in the production between a gesture and the accompanying noise. Strong acknowledged the moment with impish subtlety to the delight of the audience. I hadn’t quite realized the extent of the torpor until that snafu awakened the house.
When “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” was revived on Broadway in 2000, 15 years after it opened, the show felt dated. For social comedy that trades on the zeitgeist, 15 years is an eternity.
The world has changed even more seismically since the turn of the millennium. I found myself unable to work up much nostalgic amusement at the mention of erogenous zones, Gestalt therapy, assertiveness training, Jazzercise, Bataka bats and geodesic dome homes. Is pantyhose still sold in egg containers? At times I felt like I was in a reverie of old commercials on YouTube, notwithstanding the Elon Musk joke that’s been added.
The final flourish of sentimental wisdom, which Tomlin was barely able to make work back in the day, isn’t earned. What Strong needs is exactly what Bernhard identified for herself — her own Jane Wagner. This daring comic, whose Goober the Clown skit on “Saturday Night Live” made a potent comment on abortion last year, belongs to a different era of comedy and feminism from Wagner and Tomlin and deserves her own vehicle.
‘The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe’
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. When: 8 p.m.Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 23. (Call for exceptions.) Tickets: $35-$120 (subject to change) Info: (213) 628-2772 or centertheatregroup.org Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission COVID protocol: Check centertheatregroup.org/safety for current and updated information.