The Stage: Lily Tomlin
In ‘Search for Signs’


In “Nashville,” the Robert Altman film that marked her graduation from television-sketch comedienne to actress, Lily Tomlin was just one of many vivid characters in a throbbing panorama of contemporary American life. To say that this artist has continued to grow in the decade since then is to abridge the story drastically. In Act II of “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” her new show at the Plymouth, we find that Miss Tomlin and her longtime collaborator, the writer and director Jane Wagner, are attempting what might well be considered their theatrical update to Mr. Altman’s epic. They treat the audience to an idiosyncratic, rude, bloodstained comedy about American democracy and its discontents – and, this time around, Miss Tomlin plays all the parts herself.

The results are something to see. While Miss Tomlin’s chameleon-like ability to inhabit a wide range of personalities is not news to those who saw her previous Broadway recital, the 1977 “Appearing Nitely,” this time she knits (Marge in long macramé dress in CM) her creations (almost all of them new) into what can rightly be called a play. What’s more, the script is nearly as daring as Miss Tomlin’s single-handed assault on it. As the star trails like a comet through a galaxy of characters – with no props, costume changes or scenery for artificial propulsion – so Miss Wagner attempts to sum up a generation of social history in a tightly compressed saga of a few representative lives. Even the occasional blurring of Miss Tomlin’s characterizations and the fitful melodramatics of Miss Wagner’s writing can’t diminish the fact that Act II of “The Search for Signs” is original, not to mention absorbing, theater.

This post-intermission segment, which follows a relatively benign Act I assortment of vignettes, is also the most genuinely subversive comedy to be produced on Broadway in years. It’s a radical critique not only of the rational status quo but also of some activists who have fought (ineffectually, in the author’s view) for change. In telling the story of a California feminist named Lyn over a period that begins with the birth of Ms. magazine and ends with Geraldine Ferraro’s ascension to the Democratic ticket , Miss Tomlin and Miss Wagner make equal sport of men and women (hetero- and homosexual), liberals and reactionaries, rebellious multimedia performance artists and middle-management corporate pawns.

True, the bourgeois fashions of west Los Angeles and Marin County get hit particularly hard: Lyn and her husband live in a geodesic dome (built from a kit advertised in Mother Jones magazine) and enlist in every EST-inspired training program going. But only the self-deceiving will fail to recognize Miss Wagner’s play as an indictment of everyone who has spent the last decade either standing still or attempting “to be politically conscious and upwardly mobile at the same time.”

For all the anger that underlies the piece, it is more seductive than abrasive in the watching. Miss Tomlin makes us care about the well-meaning Lyn, who discovers too late that it is impossible to “change the system” and be a “total woman” (replete with children, money, power, cosmic consciousness) while constantly doing all the cooking and produce shopping required to maintain a gourmet health-food kitchen. We also grow to like Lyn’s best friends – Edie, a radical lesbian journalist whose newspaper is purchased by Rupert Murdoch, and Marge, who eventually discovers a most macabre outlet for her skill at macramé. Even Lyn’s hypocritical husband, Bob, isn’t a total loss. Like the title of Edie’s forthcoming book, “What’s Left of the Left”, the slogan on his favorite T-shirt – “Whales save us” – could well be the plaintive epitaph for an age.

Miss Tomlin shifts among the female personae so fast – with alterations of voice, posture and facial muscles – that Lyn’s tale almost takes on the hallucinatory flow of consciousness as it spills about the black stage. Miss Wagner’s lines rarely miss a witty trick, whether they’re describing Lyn’s preferred marijuana (“paraquat-free Panama Red”) or the products sold by Bob’s raised-consciousness catalogue business (“New Age chatchkes”). Some of the dialogue has a shapeliness that circumscribes character while making us laugh: “If I had known what it would be like to have it all,” says a beleaguered Lyn, “I might have settled for less.”

Lyn’s Act II drama aside, “The Search for Signs” sometimes does settle for less. Although Miss Tomlin’s energy never flags, Miss Wagner’s writing is variable. Some of the show’s many other characters go on too long. In Act I, the laughs and insights are outnumbered by preachy pronouncements (“God has Alzheimer’s disease and forgot that we exist”) and maudlin sketches (an alienated teen-age punk rocker turns to her grandparents for solace). The woman who serves as the evening’s unofficial narrator – Trudy, a nutty Manhattan bag lady who is conducting the metaphysical search of the title— is a treacly Ken Kesey -era cliché, stuffed with cute, curmudgeonly aphorisms that reek of Humanity and idiot-savant wisdom. Miss Tomlin, whose eyes squint into shifty half-moons when playing Trudy, is a little cloying in the role, too.

Much more convincing are such characters as Chrissy, a health-club devotee in doomed search of self-esteem and good-looking men (“If it weren’t for false hopes, the economy would just collapse,” she concludes); Brandy and Tinaa pair of prostitutes (one white, one black) living “the life” at 49th and Broadway, and, most hilariously, Kate, a trendy, jaded socialite who is bored by everything from “uplifting theater” to slick magazine articles about boredom. What Miss Tomlin and Miss Wagner don’t do to differentiate among these and the others, their inventive lighting designer, Neil Peter Jampolis, does. The punk rocker is embalmed with the sallow fluorescent light of an all-night fast-food joint, while the drugged-out streetwalker is aglow with the reflected glare of Times Square’s own nocturnal spectrum.

At the end of the show, after Lyn’s story has been told, almost all the characters converge on stage at once, brought together by Miss Tomlin’s masterful acting and a series of rapid-fire Dickensian coincidences . As they do, the tone turns abruptly sentimental. No longer are we told that life is meaningless, that the contents of Middle American homes are “garbage,” that G. Gordon Liddy’s “Will” is the self-help bible of our time or that “evolution works on the Peter Principle.” Instead, the bag lady offers comforting talk about life’s awesome “mysteries”- among them “the goosebump experience” of attending a play at which a group of strangers sitting together in the dark are laughing and crying about the same thing.”

Perhaps these final-curtain declarations of optimism are what the other characters — and their heretofore tough-minded creators – might cynically dismiss as “false hopes” or worse, “uplifting theater.” But by then, Miss Tomlin has drawn her audience completely into the goosebump experience, and who can stop tingling long enough to resist.