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Renewed life in Tomlin’s ‘Search’

Times Staff Writer

A homeless woman named Trudy is Earth’s contact person for a fact-finding committee of space aliens. Trudy may have a questionable grasp on reality, but she understands her fellow human beings pretty well, and this makes her a good tour guide.

There’s one concept she can’t quite get across, however. She shows the aliens a can of soup, then a picture of Andy Warhol’s rendering of a can of soup. The little guys can’t seem to distinguish soup from art. Which, perhaps, proves that they are a superior life form, because soup and art are both forms of nourishment.

Similarly nourishing is the show that contains this sketch: “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” performed by Lily Tomlin. The solo show has been seen several times in Southern California, before and after its much-admired Broadway run in 1985-86. Now it’s at the Ahmanson Theatre and, other than a handful of textual tweaks and slightly more elaborate stage trappings, it’s the same as before.

And thank goodness, because this has always been a perfect melding of performer and material (written and directed by Tomlin’s longtime collaborator, Jane Wagner). You wouldn’t want to see it change, just as you wouldn’t want to see Tomlin change -- which she hasn’t. At 63, she remains enviably limber and full of energy.

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Haven’t seen the show before? Viewed it a couple of times already? Either way, the impact is the same. Tomlin’s performance is a revelation. Dressed in a simple black top and pants, she portrays 12 characters, mostly women but a couple of men too. To shift from one to the next, she simply alters her vocal timbre and body carriage. In place of props or detailed backdrops, there is an ingenious sound design by Tom Clark and Mark Bennett. When Trudy moves her shopping cart, squeaking wheels are heard, perfectly timed to Tomlin’s mime. When Trudy opens her umbrella hat (combination rain-protection gear and satellite dish), a whoosh is heard.

That all of the characters are embodied in one performer underscores the show’s theme: interconnectedness. As Trudy learns in the company of her space-traveling pals: “Seems like there’s some kind of cosmic Krazy Glue connecting everything to everything.”

Trudy is the conduit. In a bolt of light (the flashiest effect in Ken Billington’s otherwise gorgeously nuanced lighting), Trudy takes over Tomlin’s body while the comedian is in the midst of her opening monologue. From then on, new characters are introduced either because the street philosopher is picking up their frequencies through her umbrella hat or she is encountering them on the streets. All of the characters are under stress, from the rebellious teenager Agnus Angst, who’s caught in a custody dispute between her divorced parents, to well-to-do Kate, who’s so bored with life that every sentence comes out as a sigh. For relief, most of the characters turn to self-help books, workshops, magazine quizzes, gyms, gurus, New Age tchotchkes and the like.

Trudy ties things together in a rush of out-of-left-field observations that, once they sink in, make perfect sense. Such as: “I personally think we developed language because of our deep inner need to complain.”

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Much of the second act is given over to the story of Lyn, who is selling off her past at a garage sale, following a divorce. As she looks at the items around her, events come rushing back, and we soon realize we’re on a trip through the history of the women’s movement, as Lyn progresses from youthful idealist, to career woman and mom, to the older but wiser woman who is able to say: “If I’d known this is what it would be like to have it all, I might have been willing to settle for less.”

Fragility and interconnectedness became especially evident at Wednesday’s opening when, in the midst of Lyn’s story, Tomlin’s voice seized in a cough and she had to walk to the side of the stage for a drink of water. Looking out at the audience while recovering, she asked, “So, how are you doing?” The crowd united in a deafeningly happy roar.

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‘The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe’

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Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.

When: Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Also this Sunday and June 1, 8, 15, 7:30 p.m., and June 19, 26 and July 3, 2 p.m.

Ends: July 6

Price: $20-$60

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Contact: (213) 628-2772

Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

Lily Tomlin...Herself and 12 characters

A Tomlin and Wagner Theatricalz presentation. Written and directed by Jane Wagner. Producer Lily Tomlin. Co-producer Janet Beroza. Set Klara Zieglerova. Lights Ken Billington. Sound Tom Clark and Mark Bennett.

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