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Trudy, a bag lady,
is the sort of talking-to-herself, gently daffy homeless person that pedestrians tend to
veer away from as they pass on the street. As Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin depict her on
the stage, though, Trudy is an acute observer with a knack for finding common sense and
decent human values in the absurdities of modern life. Trudy finds herself (as do we all)
at the corner of Walk and Don't Walk where she discusses her work as a "creative
consultant" to intergalactic visitors who constitute a cosmic fact-finding committee.
She patiently tries to explain to them the difference between a can of soup and Andy
Warhol's painting of a can of soup, a distinction that has given some terrestrials as much
difficulty as it apparently does the visitors from space.
Is Trudy out of touch with reality? She's the first to acknowledge it. But what is reality she says-- 'nothing but a collective hunch." It's also "a leading cause of stress among those who cope with it." Trudy may be nuts but it's a kind of craziness that seems awfully sensible.
It's a tribute to the witty and incisive writing of Jane Wagner that her 1986 award-winning script, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, created for her partner, Lily Tomlin, remains fresh--as perceptive and pointed fifteen years later and every bit as rich in laughs now as it was back then.
Crammed into two of the fastest hours ever on stage, Tomlin switches back and forth seamlessly amongst a dozen or so characters, including a pair of hookers; a gaggle of 70's feminists; Katie, a bored and snobbish society woman (rich people's burnout: affluenza); Chrissy, the perennial incompetent; Paul, the bodybuilding divorcee; and, of course, wonderful Trudy. There's an extended riff on the development of language and the strangeness of human history: "We were hunters and gatherers and then all of a sudden we were party-goers." The look back to the early enthusiasms of feminism have the grace of self-mockery without in the least devaluing its accomplishments.
Tomlin's energy level as she bounds about the stage would challenge a woman half her age. Her body language, her voice control and mastery of accents, and her precise timing are superb tools honed to deftly and economically make these diverse characters come to life. She's a consummate actor whose talents, time and again, have been wasted in inappropriate roles on the screen. But here, in material created expressly for her gifts, and with content that clearly reflects her world view as well as Wagner's, she shines with the extra glow of conviction.
Many of Wagner's lines have developed a comfortable familiarity from the 1986 run and from the film (and video) made of the play. The script, with which she has tinkered only in minor ways, connects all the characters together in a wry roundelay. After all, as Trudy observes, "We all time-share the same atoms."
San Francisco, September 18, 2001 - Arthur Lazere