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Stage Review : Tomlin's 'Signs' Shows The Way

November 07, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

There's a strange sense of loss when Lily Tomlin takes her bows alone after "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe" at the Doolittle Theatre. Where are Trudy and Agnus, Chrissy and Kate, Edie and Marge?

Back in the trunk. They were only characters after all. And we knew, all along, that it was Lily playing them. Since she never left the stage, who else could it have been?

But never has a one-woman show seemed so well-peopled. You'd have to go back to Ruth Draper's evenings of character sketches to find a comparison. "Search for Signs," however, is a play by Tomlin's partner, Jane Wagner. Not a linear play, to be sure. (Most of its characters consider "linear" an insult.) But everything in it connects to everything else, eventually.

Connecting is its theme. Its guiding spirit is Trudy, who began her career as a creative consultant, but is now a bag lady--clearly a spiritual promotion.

Trudy is considered crazy by linear types, but she feels much more open to the universe than she did when when she was doing color schemes for Howard Johnson's. For instance, she is presently entertaining a delegation from outer space, who are casing Planet Earth for signs of intelligent life.

Tomlin makes Trudy a kind of benign Ole Man Mose, full of odd wisdom that she's picked up from her garbage-can reading. (She's big on biospheres.) Understandably, we're not introduced to Trudy's "space chums." Not even Lily Tomlin can play a blob.

But we do meet Trudy's Earth chums. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call them the people in Trudy's psychic field--as in magnetic field. At any rate, she and Tomlin can pick up on them like a scanner radio: whoever's sending out the strongest signal.

Most of them are women, and many of them resemble generic characters whom Tomlin has played before--the brat, the rich lady, etc. But each has an individual reality here. The brat this time is a punk teen-ager named Agnus (with a "u"), who wears so many chains that when she comes home the garage door opener trips on.

She's chained up inside, as well--as with all Tomlin characters, the pose reflects the vulnerability. The rich lady this time is Kate (after Kate Hepburn), who is so bored, bored, bored that she'd like to end it all, except that that would probably be boring too.

The strangest thing happens to her. She finds someone else's suicide note in the street. . . . I won't complete Kate's story, but it hooks up with somebody else's, as I didn't realize the first time I saw "Search for Signs" on Broadway. It also connects with Tina and Brandy's story, those two fine hookers from Times Square. Wagner has woven a tighter narrative than one might think, and the last sentence wraps it up so cleverly that you laugh out loud.

The longest sequence takes three feminist friends, Lynn, Edie and Marge, from the heady liberationist days of the early 1970s to the crestfallen present. The emphasis is on Lynn, a sensitive woman who gets victimized by everybody (including her sensitive husband), but who comes out of it stronger at the breaks. Edie ends up the lesbian mother of a star violinist. Marge meets her fate via a macrame planter.

Zany, all this, in the Tomlin manner. But she's not deriding the decade's hopes--as when Lynn's husband wants to be a "holistic capitalist"--or sentencing anyone to a cynical middle age. "Search for Signs" is hip without being dismissive. People may be ridiculous, but they're not "specks."

Besides Tomlin's invisible friends, she's had excellent technical help from lighting man and set designer Neil Peter Jampolis (there's much more going on here than meets the eye) and from sound man Bruce Cameron, who has an effect for every occasion, from Trudy's squeaky-wheeled shopping cart to the whisk of a Kleenex as Lynn bravely tells her Gestalt therapist all about it. The details of this show are right; so is its heart.


UNIVERSE' Jane Wagner's play, starring Lily Tomlin, at the James A. Doolittle Theatre. Presented by the UCLA Center for the Arts and the Southern California Theatre Assn. Producer Tomlin. Director Wagner. Scenery and lighting Neil Peter Jampolis. Sound Bruce Cameron. Costumes Ann Roth. General management Veronica Claypool. Production stage manager Janet Beroza. Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m. 1615 N. Vine St. (213) 410-1062. Runs indefinitely.

2 lines of 19p

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