Tomlin is her most delightful creation

Friday, September 8, 2000


An interview with Lily Tomlin is really more like a breezy chat than an exercise in journalistic professionalism.

You hear about her brother Richard’s career as a Palm Springs lounge crooner and about her 87-year-old mother’s deft way of working a family reunion crowd. (Mrs. Tomlin’s name is Lillie. Her daughter Mary Jean borrowed and revised the name when she became a professional performer some 40 years ago.)

You hear about Tomlin’s collection of Maggie Smith’s cigarette butts and about the dreamy pasta in Venice. You discover that Tomlin and her life partner/professional collaborator Jane Wagner have been together for 30 years partly because, as Tomlin puts it, “I adore her.” You hear about the Communist who lived in the Detroit apartment building where Tomlin grew up, and also about the genteel ultra-conservative dowager who “taught me to be a lady.”

You laugh a lot. As the world has known for the past 30 years at least, Lily Tomlin is very funny. TV watchers, film buffs and theatergoers have all enjoyed the humor of this versatile multimedia star.

Tomlin’s monodrama “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” written and directed by Wagner, opens the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s fall season Monday. The show was developed and fine-tuned 15 years ago at the Rep. Broadway audiences found it funny. Audiences all over the country have found it funny. After the present national tour ends this fall, Tomlin will open her “Search” again on Broadway.

But besides being witty, “Search” is something else. The play’s eventful two hours includes a marriage breakup, a rejected teenager, a disillusioned male swinger, several disillusioned feminists, a lesbian relationship that doesn’t work, a deranged homeless woman, two prostitutes, alcoholism, depression and two suicides.

“Now we don’t know for sure there are two suicides,” Tomlin objects. “Marge, yes. But all we know for sure is that Chrissy wrote a suicide note. We don’t know whether she followed through or not.

“Twelve characters — I think the misfortunes that befall them over 10 years are about average for a group that size.”

“Search,” though comic in tone, encompasses dark aspects of life. “That’s why it is poignant,” Tomlin says. “That’s why it touches people as well as entertaining them.”

After turning the show into a movie in 1991, Tomlin had thought she was done with “Search.” Other performers were able to obtain rights to produce it. Tomlin was due to go on a road tour this year with a stand-up comedy show. “But Jane and I were doing workshops with drama students at the University of Southern California, and we used ‘Search.’ It turned out that the students really liked the material. They didn’t live through the trials of ’70s feminism. But it’s part of the way they live their lives. Feminism is part of their culture. And they are interested in where it came from.

“Anyway, I decided not to do stand-up comedy. I’d much rather tour with something substantial like ‘Search.'”

The pioneering feminists in “Search” are Lyn, Edie and Marge. Lyn’s supposed liberation involves marrying a sensitive New Age man. Edie leaves her husband and takes up with a lesbian artist. And Marge devotes herself to alcohol, her plant store and her many, many men.

Casting sidelights on American women’s lives toward the end of the 20th century are Brandy and Tina, two prostitutes; Agnus Angst, a teenage performance artist who is angry at everyone and everything; Chrissy, a rudderless voyager adrift in conflicting currents; Judith Beasley, a late-blooming orgasm enthusiast; Paul, whose eagerness to use women has become counter-productive; and Kate, a wealthy and idle Manhattanite on the verge of terminal boredom.

And then there’s Trudy. Trudy is our “Search” guide. She is one of the many psychotics who left mental hospitals and became street people in the ’70s. A source of endless delight for her are the space aliens who rely on her for insights into life on Earth. “They said to me, ‘Trudy, the human mind is so-o-o strange,'” she tells us. “I told ’em, ‘That’s nothing compared to human genitals.'”

As the Wagner/Tomlin characters evolve, they develop an increasing capacity to care and understand.

Tomlin herself is a partisan of caring and understanding. “It’s terrible how callous we’ve become about homelessness,” she says. “When I was growing up, it was shocking to me, absolute shocking, to see a man lying on the street. Maybe he had had a heart attack. Maybe he was drunk. But I was shocked. Now we see people lying in doorways and on sidewalk grates every day. We hardly notice.”

A conversation with Tomlin is a bit like “Search.” One minute is quite serious. The next is giddy. So let’s end here on a light note. Tomlin’s birthday was Sept. 1. She is quick to point out that she shares the date with various notables. She celebrated her birthday here in Seattle. She is now 61.

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