Cecily Strong revered Lily Tomlin’s one-woman show growing up. Why she’s reviving it now
If you’re used to seeing someone in the two-dimensional flatness of a Zoom box, it can be magical when you finally meet in person. And on a recent Friday afternoon in the Valley, that transpired when Cecily Strong and Leigh Silverman first wrapped arms around Jane Wagner, the doyenne of comedy writing who penned ”The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” — the play that Strong currently stars in, and Silverman directs, running through Oct. 23 at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum.
“We quote you all day,” says Strong. “All day, we just quote Jane Wagner.”
“How can we not end up here at your table?” says Silverman, shaking her head happily.
Wagner, the ever-gracious host, offers a protein drink “with blueberries, which are supposed to be a superfood for your brain.”
The Taper run marks the second leg of the women’s journey revving up a revival that bowed at the Shed Theater in Manhattan during the height of the devastating Omicron wave in January, which explains why the collaboration involving Wagner happened exclusively online.
“All of this has happened in the last few years, during some of the darkest times,” says Silverman, recalling how poignant the play felt as she reconnected with it during the pandemic, when she feared she would never direct theater again. “I was so moved by the idea that if aliens visited from outer space, the connection that’s formed in live theater is the thing that would make them die of wonder.”
Wagner wrote “Intelligent Life” for her longtime creative partner and wife, Lily Tomlin, more than three decades ago. Tomlin was already a beloved comic when the play premiered on Broadway in 1985. The one-woman show, which requires its lead to rapidly switch among more than 10 characters, served as an ideal showcase for Tomlin’s uncanny ability to adopt various personas to uproarious effect. Its success solidified her reputation as a comedic legend. Tomlin won a Tony for her performance and in 1991 the piece was reimagined for film, cementing the work’s place in the pantheon of beloved 20th century plays, where it remains tightly tucked to this day.
“Your writing is so revelatory, every line,” Strong says to Wagner. “In the audience, some people are laughing nervously while other people are crying. You left it open, so everyone is going to have their own experience while watching this show.”
Slightly cultish, strongly feminist and satisfyingly wacky, “Intelligent Life” is a collection of sketches about the lives of women — a punk rock teen poet, two sex workers who end up giving their stories to a journalist, a former concert violinist who lost her dream only to find herself in a suburban socialite slump. These characters are all connected through the imagination, or neural misfirings, of a roaming unhoused woman named Trudy, who also believes she is shepherding aliens through the realities of life on Earth.
It’s the kind of play that theater-loving teenagers find themselves digging through for monologues in high school drama classes, which is exactly how Strong first became acquainted with the material. She fell so deeply in love with it that, decades later, when a note from her agent appeared in her inbox asking if she’d consider reprising Tomlin’s role in a COVID-era revival, she vaulted over her reservations about the terror of being compared to the “Grace and Frankie” star, and said yes almost immediately.
“I’ll do that, even though it’s a huge risk and a scary thing to do,” says Strong. “I told them ‘Saturday Night Live’ will come second, because if we’re going to do this, I need to spend time with it.”
As COVID plateaus at a steady, endemic burn, the trio revels in their first in-person gathering. A stage manager administers rapid antigen tests at the door — the familiar swabs, tubes and diminutive droppers arranged like hors d’oeuvres on a giant white armchair that tips its massive bulk to Tomlin’s legendary character, Edith Ann, a precocious 5-year-old who tells outrageous stories while sitting in an oversized rocker.
Like almost everything in Tomlin and Wagner’s life, Edith Ann crystallized as the result of a fruitful collaboration that began in the early 1970s and continues to this day. Wagner entertains her guests solo — Tomlin having passed on an interview in a humble attempt to not steal the limelight from those who have taken up the torch she has passed.
Still — like signs of intelligent life in this bustling atelier filled with ephemera from more than 60 years spent at the nexus of showbiz — evidence of Tomlin is everywhere. In a picture of her and Wagner with the Obamas, of her with Jane Fonda on her lap on the set of “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” limned in a love letter handwritten by Wagner and taped to a mirror in the entryway, which begins, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, Lil’s the fairest one of all.”
The women sit at a large glass table in an airy living room filled with white furniture and a Wurlitzer jukebox. Wagner commands the gathering with a playfully winking gravitas, cracking sly, self-deprecating jokes and showing great deference to her guests. She says that the creative bond between Strong and Silverman reminds her of herself and Tomlin, which is why she thinks Tomlin was open to having them reimagine such personal material.
“I don’t know who else she would have liked to have done it,” says Wagner. “She’s very protective in a way.”
Silverman and Strong have formed an intense connection since they began burrowing inside Wagner’s words, excavating them for meaning that resonates across generations — ideas that ring as true in 2022 as they did at the height of the Reagan era.
A bit that featured a character listening to Betty Friedan, for instance, has been replaced by a 1973 news clip of Walter Cronkite announcing that the Supreme Court had just legalized abortion. That tweak, on opening night at the Taper, elicited a gasp from an audience that had recently experienced the exact opposite moment when the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade in June.
As Trudy — the show’s eccentric ringleader — will tell you: Time does not move in a linear fashion. In “Intelligent Life,” the experiences of the characters who ping-pong through a patchwork of hilarious, sardonic moments add up to a gestalt finale that questions the connective tissue of the universe while confirming its essential goodness.
Hint: The latter has to do with humanity’s communion with art — something Wagner knows a thing or two about, having examined ideas of artifice and authenticity as a friend of Andy Warhol. A black-and-white photo of Wagner with Warhol and several large boxes of fabricated Brillo Pads sits on a shelf near the table where Wagner talks.
Warhol actually wrote about Tomlin and Wagner in a book, Wagner says, laughing, “And he wrote, ‘very feminine,’ which nobody has ever written — not about us.”
Tomlin saw the “Intelligent Life” revival live for the first time on opening night at the Taper, and Wagner recalls that Tomlin was truly impressed when she returned home.
“She was really happy,” says Wagner to Strong and Silverman. “She said that she ‘couldn’t believe how you’ve found things — you’ve made it your own.’”
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