Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
Lily Tomlin is more than a comedienne. Whereas Alice went "Through the Looking Glass" to find a topsyturvy but delightful world. Lily breaks through the Tube to find there was nothing there but broken promises, shattered illusions and hollow dreams.
Titling her solo performance "Appearing Nitely," the "Laugh-In" phone operator who turned out to be smarter than she sounded opened Tuesday night for a sold-out fortnight at the National. (To benefit Women's Lobby, Inc., she's scheduled an extra performance next Wednesday night at 11, for which the box office will have seats on Friday.)
With Jane Wagner material added to her own. Tomlin's two-hour parade of characters has deft sound and lighting effects under George Boyd's direction. But for all of it, Lily's on her own, the same black slacks, gray shirt and sandals for both halves. "I have two outfits just alike," she explains.
The comment is pertinent. She is mocking the usual star turns who take over stages for two hours with 200 costume changes. She's telling us she's not going for any of that - that she's going to tell us about the world the way it seems to her.
As all good comediennes do, Tomlin forces you to think serious thoughts, for the best of comedy is a social reflection, a comment that will bring swift recognition from those varied minds which make up the audience.
To a degree, Tomlin's comedy, so enlarged and enriched from that switchboard turn which put her on the American map, is the most intelligent humor to come from the Tube. Her characters are observed from almost a sociologist's or an analyst's chair. It is "Look Back in Disgust" time for the late '50s, the chaotic '60s, the puzzled '70s.
Her characters have learned about life at the Tube. That, as that awful phrase puts it, is where they were at. And remain. And it is from having gaped at the same Tube that Tomlin's richly appreciative audiences achieve their empathy.
Of the stream of characters from the second grade to parenthood, her most striking is the most extreme, the first quadriplegic to hang-glide from the Pacific Palisades. This is an extraordinary idea for a comic sketch and more than anything else illustrates how a nation has changed. Not too long ago such a character would not even have been considered.
Tomlin makes this paralyzed woman, Crystal, curiously right, observing what is done to her, not for her. "Thank God," says Crystal, "kids never mean well." Then she laughs, not a mocking laugh, which is so often the tone of Tomlin's other laughs, but a genial, matter-of-fact, open, eyes-laughing laugh.
From the supermarket to the singles bars, Tomlin explores a world which has been created from the Tube: "If it weren't for commercials, people would just wander around stores."
"I bought a wastebasket and carried it home in a paper bag. Then I put the paper bag in the wastebasket."
She marvels at "the cosmic understanding of a Lipton's flo-thru teabag."
"I worry that the person who thought up Muzak will think of something else."
Wisely not trying to deepen her voice, she takes note of the single bars' males who aren't so aggressive as they sound when they voice their mindless, male platitudes. No wonder the women love Tomlin. She understands.
Because reality exposes the petty falsities of the Tube, this is, then, a world closely, narrowly observed. It is neither a hopeful nor cheerful world Tomlin sees, and accurate as her reflections are, she finds it tightly Saran-wrapped, glistening and glittery but airless and heartless, too.
But, if heartless, she is not fearful. Tomlin's world is looked at, faced, considered, despised. But the saving tone is fearlessness. So what. Okay. That's it.