Reviewed by Robert Faires
Lily Tomlin kicked off her new national tour of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe with a real love fest at Bass Concert Hall last Thursday. The 3,000 or so folks in the house were effusive even by Austin standards; they could hardly wait to get to their feet and once they started applauding, they had a hard time stopping. For her part, Tomlin beamed and enthusiastically told the crowd how much she loved Austin and what special city it was to her. It might have seemed like so much concert bosshwah – “Aus-tin, are you ready to rock?” – but for the mention of UT Theatre Department Professor Emeritus Ruth Denney, whom the performer befriended during a visit here in the Seventies. And seeing Tomlin embrace Denney at a reception following the show, as well as spend an hour chatting merrily with anyone who approached her, contributed further to the idea that this was no ordinary stop on the tour.
As for the show itself: More than a decade since its debut, the script by Jane Wagner is a marvel – still astonishingly tight, weaving sharp observation with bright one-liners and a gallery of vivid characters – and Tomlin’s performance of it as crisp as autumn. I was struck this time around by the show’s similarities to Our Town, by Thornton Wilder. It has the same simplicity of setting, same sense of theatricality, same direct address to the audience, same expansive view of humanity, same sense of human folly, same compassion, same generosity, same touch of the cosmic. Who knows if this play will live on next to Wilder’s, but it deserves to.