The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe was Lily Tomlin’s One-Woman Tour De Force, yet Cecily Strong breathes new life into an iconic masterpiece.
By John Lavitt
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 10-05-2022
It is not easy to follow in the footsteps of a legend, and Lily Tomlin is a legendary performer and comedian. From Nashville (1975) and Nine to Five (1980) to Flirting with Disaster (1996) and A Prairie Home Companion (2006), she has been entertaining generation after generation. Lily Tomlin’s wife and long-time collaborator, Jane Wagner, wrote The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe for her as a one-woman show. A goal was to give her a platform to display her full range of characters. After a successful Broadway run in 1985, it became a feature film in 1991. People loved Tomlin’s performance so much that she brought it back to Broadway in 2000.
Things do change. Lily Tomlin turned eighty-three in September, and it seems almost impossible for her ever to put on this ultra-demanding show again. However, themes of homelessness, casual desperation, alternative child raising, bullying, and streetwalkers fit perfectly with the world as it is today in 2022. Thus, it would be a shame if The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe were abandoned as Lily’s show and only Lily’s show.
Thank God this is not the way the world works. After a decade as one of the stars of Saturday Night Live (SNL), Cecily Strong decided to challenge herself. Rather than exit the legendary show, she took a leave of absence to put on The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Directed by Leigh Silverman, Cecily Strong’s inspired version of an iconic classic adds new dimensions and emotional depth to the one-woman show. The show runs until October 23rd, and it is a shining star of the 2022 fall theatrical season in Los Angeles.
Having seen Lily Tomlin perform the show back in the day in New York, we loved how she created the characters with her comedic touch of brilliant master strokes. Like Kate McKinnon, the female star of SNL and a compatriot of Cecily Strong, Lily Tomlin is a master of caricature. Her take on The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe focused on taking caricature to the next level. In truth, such caricature is not Cecily Strong’s strength as an actor.
As a result, in the first half of the one-woman show, when the storyline bounces from one extreme character to another, Cecily Strong’s performance is very good, but not great. It does not reach the heights of what Lily Tomlin achieved back in the day. However, this is not a condemnation because Cecily Strong comes back in the second half of the performance like an undeniable storm of emotional precision.
Indeed, if the first half feels overwhelmed in moments, the second half comes across as utterly in her wheelhouse. Cecily Strong takes an intense and emotional storyline to places that Lily Tomlin did not. Although Tomlin’s caricatures were very good when the emotions took over, Strong accesses a depth that brings tears to the eyes of the audience. An emotional journey is taken with her that is moving and upsetting simultaneously. Her groundedness in the reality of these characters turns caricatures into flesh and blood. Without a doubt, Cecily Strong bravely triumphs over a real challenge at the Mark Taper Forum.
As a final note, we will ask the question again about how this performance translates for a person is still learning to speak English fluently. Is The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe a performance that provides access if English is your second language or third? Can you follow along with the narrative if your English is good but not necessarily great?
To realize an answer to this question, the actress Bruna Bertossi from São Paulo, Brazil, attended the show with this reviewer. Although some of the deeper meanings and references were not quite accessible, she connected deeply to the characters. She loved seeing such a tour de force from a single actor.
As Bruna Bertossi explains, “I cannot follow always what all characters that she takes on are saying. Sometimes I get lost. But that does not stop me from connection because I see these women and I have seen them in my life experiences. They are the women I know and meet ever since I came to Los Angeles and this country. I also know the challenge of doing a monologue. What Cecily Strong did on that stage inspires me to be a better actor and find a greater discipline.”
If English is not your first language, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe could work as a night out at the theatre. Still, if English is your first language, here is a show that is not to be missed. Indeed, Cecily Strong is one brave actor.
Photos by Craig Schwartz and John Lavitt