“The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” has found incontrovertible proof of something. Just what, though, is hard to define. Maybe it’s the notion that outer-space aliens get a kick out of social satire.
Jane Wagner, who originally wrote the show as a one-woman tour de farce for Lily Tomlin, certainly credits them with a sense of humor. “Search” might even be retitled “Punch Line Fever.”
As performed at the Alternative Repertory Theatre by a cast of five women instead of one, the show maintains a sufficiently high entertainment quotient to satisfy any aliens who might happen by. Even earthlings with a taste for shtick ought to come away from this production with smiles on their faces.
Still, a “Search” without Tomlin or some prodigious talent able to impersonate all 14 of its characters tends to reveal the script’s weakness.
It plays like a marathon sketch pulsing with wisecracks but packing no emotional punch. However heartfelt a scene or character purports to be, the script invariably goes for the laugh.
The show also rambles. It rambled when Tomlin did it, though nobody complained because her Tony Award-winning performance was so delicious. And it rambles now, clocking in at three hours.
Trudy, the cosmic bag lady who believes reality is “nothing but a collective hunch,” provides the evening’s philosophical glue. As she waits for aliens to land so she can show them around, she pushes a shopping cart back and forth across a city street at the corner of “Walk / Don’t Walk"--a latter-day version of Grover’s Corner.
Between Trudy’s offbeat noodling (“The problem with shock treatments is flyaway hair”) and beam-me-up trances, we get to meet a constellation of women from the self-help ‘70s whose lives have been shaped by feminist ideals, environmental ecology, New-Age consciousness and left-wing politics.
Wagner sends up all of these women, as well as the zeitgeist of the women’s liberation movement in its heyday, from the first appearance of Ms. magazine to the Democrats’ nomination of Geraldine A. Ferraro for vice president.
Among the more memorable caricatures are Chrissy, an aerobics airhead in pursuit of spiritual fulfillment and hunky men (“All my life I wanted to be somebody. Now I see I should have been more specific”); teen runaway Agnus Angst, a punk-style performance artist (“I’m getting my act together and throwing it in your face”); and Lynn, the upwardly mobile, have-it-all housewife who believes in her husband’s “holistic capitalism.”
Playing those three women, Ryan Kray is the show’s standout performer, delineating each of them with theatrical flair and stylish confidence.
Other characters who come in for Wagner’s satirical treatment include a blithe pair of Manhattan hookers named Tina and Brandi; Kate, a bored socialite with a hairdo problem, and Lynn’s feminist friends, the macrame artist Marge and the radical lesbian journalist Edie.
Director Patricia L. Terry’s staging is clear and direct. There isn’t much she can do to keep the show from sprawling, especially given her decision to cast a handful of players. The flow from one vignette to the next loses the magical unity of the original. It flattens out an already narrative-prone script more than it would with a single actor in all the roles.
Even so, this “Search” still produces the welcome sound of laughter. And if it doesn’t yield an awe-struck “goose-bump experience” about the meaning of life, as Trudy hopes it will, frankly neither did the original.
* “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” Alternative Repertory Theatre, 1636 S. Grand Ave., Santa Ana. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends June 11. $13.50-$16. (714) 836-7929. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes. Myrna Niles: Trudy
Dina Bartello: Lily / Paul / Tina / Edie
Marion Kay Shoaff: Judith / Kate / Marie / Marge
Ryan Kray: Chrissy / Agnus / Lynn
Valerie Swaim: Lud / Brandi
An Alternative Repertory Theatre production of the play by Jane Wagner. Directed by Patricia L. Terry. Producer: Kathleen A. Bryson. Scenic designer: Christa Bartels. Costume designer: Karen J. Weller. Lighting designer: Jamie McAllister. Sound and makeup designer: Gary Christensen.