At the beginning of her new one-woman show, Lily Tomlin ticks off a litany of worries she can't get out of her head -- that "evolution works on the Peter Principle," that "God has Alzheimer's disease and has forgotten we exist" and that the audience in the Plymouth Theatre is watching her only because "you couldn't get tickets for what you really want to see."
I can't reassure her about God or evolution. But Tomlin needn't waste another fretful thought on her audience. "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," as she calls this resourceful, wise and howlingly funny show, is the first SRO smash of the Broadway season. All the poor souls outside the theater, desperately trying to get in, are what she should be worried about.
Although Tomlin has a storehouse of popular characters she could draw upon -- Ernestine, Edith Ann, Bobbi Jeanine -- the comedienne, in league with writer and longtime collaborator Jane Wagner, has chosen instead to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. Not only has she come up with a dozen or so entirely new creatures, but she has woven them into a tapestry that is both richer and deeper than "Appearing Nitely," her 1977 Broadway outing. "Search" seems less a succession of comedy turns than it does a real play, a kind of Gulliver's travelogue of the latter half of the 20th century, that period in human development known for macrame' planters, geodesic domes, aerobics classes and "tofu melt."
It takes place on a stage stripped of all but a couple of chairs and bleachers. A sound track punctuates some of Tomlin's actions with, say, the whoosh of tissues being plucked from a box, the purr of a can opener or the snap of cue stick meeting billiard ball. Lighting establishes the various coast-to-coast locales in the flash of a strobe. But it is Tomlin's astonishing artistry -- as mime, mimic, actress and monologuist -- that fills the stage to overflowing.
She has always had an acute awareness of mankind as a species that lives on bread, water and fads. The zest and accuracy with which she identifies -- then skewers -- cultural and sociological trends is exhilarating. But there's more to it than that: If Tomlin's characters are quick to latch on to the latest fashion, it's because otherwise they really have no idea where they're going. They're misguided, confused, misunderstood. A fad at least points them, momentarily, in a direction, gives them purpose, keeps the craziness at bay.
That undercoating of bewilderment is, I think, what makes her comedy so human. Outlandish as her characters are, surrealistic as their lives may get, they never entirely shed the vulnerability of lost children. Indeed, the unstated, but unmistakable, theme of "Search" is that we're all in this cosmic soup together -- mad punker, bored matron, hip hooker, radical feminist and chauvinist pig, not to mention the 1980s husband whom Tomlin calls "a new-age Ward Cleaver." The last, in fact, wears a T-shirt that sums up our collective predicament: "Whales Save Us," it says.
All of them are looking for self-fulfilment. Some, like Chrissy, the bubble-headed L.A. aerobics freak, just happen to look for it in gyms, while Agnus Angst, the alienated teen-ager in zippered leather, pours all her anguish and anger into dubious performance art. (One of her chief grievances: "When I first came into this world, Elvis was already fat.") For Kate, the wealthy New York matron who's not only bored but bored of being bored, the agony of "rich people's burnout" is a kind of self-expression.
Serving as the evening's narrator is Trudy, a mad bag lady who wears her wig inside out and her panty hose rolled down to her ankles. Trudy has, so it seems, befriended aliens from outer space who are here to take a look at "a planet in puberty." Clasping them by the hand -- although they are, apparently, little more than gelatinous blobs -- she introduces them to us and, more significantly, us to them. Trudy is one of Tomlin's dizziest creations -- a metaphysical fruitcake who proves to be the sanest person on stage.
She alone is alert to the wonders of the universe (it's because she practices "awe-robics.") "Language," she snorts, squinting her eyes and rumpling up her nose, "developed out of our deep inner need to complain." What really distinguishes man from the animals is "our desire to take drugs." As for reality, she says with a take-it-from-one-who-knows look, it's no more than "a collective hunch." Trudy threads her way through the show -- tying it together on the one hand, giving it an oddly appealing spirituality on the other.
Tomlin's virtuosity and Wagner's incisiveness, however, reach their apex in the second act with the tale of Lynn, a contemporary California housewife who has it all and finds she is "willing to settle for less." When we first meet her, Lynn is organizing a garage sale with the remnants of her life. Tomlin then flashes back to reveal what happened to her and a collection of her feminist friends during a period running roughly from the birth of Ms. magazine to the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro.
The result is a hilarious saga of dreams collapsing, sexual arrangements backfiring, good intentions souring and bandwagons careening off the track -- all by way of proof that "it is hard to be politically conscious and upwardly mobile at the same time." But more, the sketch -- a short one-act play, really -- is a bittersweet tribute to the gallant foolishness of human beings who persist in believing that sensitivity sessions, trail mix and Cuisinarts are going to make a difference. Simultaneously, Tomlin catches the audience up in half a dozen intertwining fates, switching from one to the other with the aplomb of the master storyteller.
"The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe" is a compendium of pop history, a living anthropological exhibit of the relics of a society that subscribes to disposable life styles. That makes it very funny, grab-your-sides funny. But it is also a chronicle of the human heart, trying to mend its bruises and ease its disappointments.
And that makes it sublime, catch-your-breath sublime.
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written and directed by Jane Wagner. Lighting and set design, Neil Peter Jampolis. With Lily Tomlin. At the Plymouth Theatre.