Jon Imparato is in the West Hollywood courtyard of the Los Angeles LGBT Center talking about the eureka moment he had for staging Jane Wagner’s one-woman show for Lily Tomlin, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” as a full-blown play for 12 actors.
“And so [my friend] Rose says to me, ‘You think you can do that?’” Imparato recalls.
From across the table, a familiar voice cuts in with a more blunt take on the question: “You think you can kick that Tomlin woman out of the way?”
There’s a beat — she’s kidding, right? — before the group, which includes playwright Wagner, director Ken Sawyer and, yes, Tomlin, erupts with laughter.
Tomlin’s blue eyes crinkle up and sparkle as she sees the effect of her words on the group.
Still, it’s true that the idea of “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” without Tomlin makes about as much sense at first as “Swimming to Cambodia” without Spalding Gray would.
Wagner wrote “The Search” for Tomlin, her writing and life partner since 1971 (and her wife since 2014), and Tomlin developed all of its characters and performed it solo on Broadway from 1985 to 1986, in the 1991 film and in numerous stage revivals, including one that came to the Ahmanson in 2003.
A handful of other performers have taken on “The Search,” but the responses have been remarkably of a piece: “Nice job, but you’re not Lily Tomlin.”
Imparato, though, had a vision for a fully staged “Search” and the courage to pitch it to Wagner and Tomlin. It helped that his department of the LGBT Center bears their names — the Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center — and that he has known them for more than 20 years. They, in turn, dote on him, listening fondly and at times tearfully to his anecdotes.
“Jon is such a force for this place,” says Wagner of Imparato, the LGBT Center’s director of arts and education. “I’m so impressed with what he’s done. He won’t cop to it.”
“Oh, I think he would cop to it,” Tomlin says, those eyes twinkling again.
“I’m a very lucky, blessed man,” Imparato allows. “There was no cultural arts department when I came here 20 years ago. There was a black box movie theater with no chairs.”
The center’s West Hollywood branch, the Village at Ed Gould Plaza, now boasts two theaters and a flourishing arts program.
But even with their long relationship, Imparato had no idea if Wagner and Tomlin would agree to let him revisit “Search.” When he emailed them with the idea, they sent a noncommittal reply: “Sounds interesting. Let’s talk.”
So along with Sawyer, who directed the successful immersive play “Hit the Wall,” produced by Imparato, as well as many other well-received LGBT Center productions, he took the couple to brunch.
“Got us drunk,” recalls Tomlin.
“We just think they’re great guys,” Wagner says of Imparato and Sawyer. “Ken is so talented, and Jon is so inspired and brilliant, and Lily’s so busy doing everything else.”
Most recently, Tomlin has been starring in the Netflix series “Grace and Frankie” with Jane Fonda. She also performs live all over the country at a daunting pace. She didn’t have much time to devote to a new “Search,” but she was happy to let one happen.
“And now we’re deep into it, and we can’t stop it,” Wagner says of the production, which is set to open Oct. 15.
Wagner is soft-spoken, with a Southern accent and an aura of encouraging kindness. But she also has a knack for dry asides, causing Tomlin to break up with such heartfelt amusement it’s hard to resist joining in.
As Tomlin explains a few days later by phone, she was thrilled for Wagner to have the pleasure of working on “Search” again.
“She’s very gifted, but she doesn’t step out much,” she says. “I’m asked to do a million things, because the longer you’re in the business, the more friends you have, and the harder it is to say no. Jane would never push her stuff. She was really laid-back. I was hoping this would inspire her to write a sequel to ‘Search.’ Of course, if it did I would never know it until she would suddenly produce a big stack of papers.”
It was Wagner’s writing that first brought the couple together. Tomlin was a household name, having created a series of wildly popular characters on TV’s “Laugh-In”: Ernestine, the condescending telephone operator; Edith Ann, the precocious little girl in the giant rocking chair; and Madame Lupe, the world’s oldest beauty expert, among many others.
But despite her success, Tomlin says, “I wanted my characters to be so much more. I was looking for another layer. I like stuff that’s really funny — wonderfully funny. Kindly funny.”
While developing an album of Edith Ann material, she happened to see an after-school special called “J.T.” that Wagner had written. “I just thought it was so thoughtful and inspired and moving, almost like poetry. It was heightened but realistic. She can make the most incredible observations.” She got in touch with Wagner and asked her to help write Edith Ann.
Recalls Wagner wryly, “I think when I entered the picture, you stopped winning Grammys, and you stopped making money.”
But Tomlin has a different perception: “The Edith Ann album was where I made my first real leap, in terms of character, in terms of richness and detail. Once I met Jane I stopped trying to invent things for myself.”
“Search,” the couple’s most successful collaboration, is a series of quirky characters channeled by a philosophical bag lady, Trudy, who is trying to explain the human race to benign but baffled aliens. Gradually, the strangers’ monologues reveal their cosmic connection to one another and all of humanity.
“We used to get such great laughs and then people would turn on a dime and be genuinely moved,” Tomlin recalls. “I’d come out the stage door and there’d be a yuppie couple, tall and blond and fabulous, and a bunch of punked-out kids, and like three middle-aged women in housedresses, and they’d be hugging each other. And they’d hug me.”
There’s a genius actress, who shape-shifts into 12 different people, and it’s magic. But we don’t have Lily Tomlin.
Imparato is aware that he, Sawyer and the cast have a lot to live up to. “There’s a genius actress who shape-shifts into 12 different people, and it’s magic. But we don’t have Lily Tomlin. So we have to find a way to make this work without Lily Tomlin.”
Their efforts include a greater emphasis on interactions among the characters rather than monologues, along with a set and costumes (Tomlin originally performed on a bare stage in a black shirt and pants). Sawyer says he has to make an effort to put the original out of his head and approach it like any other play, “because otherwise I would just freeze.”
“The actors are very good,” says Wagner, who has been on hand to approve minor revisions to the script. “But it’s still very strange hearing 12 people speak, when everything before had come out of Lily.”
Tomlin, who has sat in on rehearsals twice, admits that she found it a little jarring too. “I’d hear the cadence of how they were saying something, and I’d suddenly flash back on how I would say it, or whatever emphasis I might have.”
How did the actors feel about having her there?
“I hope they didn’t feel intimidated,” she replies ruefully. “I’m afraid they did. They may well have.”
“Yes, they did,” asserts Imparato. “How could you not? There’s two icons sitting in the theater; you’re doing the words she wrote and the words she performed. These people grew up watching Lily.”
So did Imparato, who not only frequently slips in old “Laugh-In” bits but also saw “Search” on Broadway 17 times, including on closing night, when Andy Warhol was in the audience and Tomlin injured her foot and literally asked, “Is there a doctor in the house?”
“And there was!” Tomlin recalls. “I’ll never forget who it was: Evelyn Waugh’s grandson.” He bandaged her up backstage and sent her back out to finish the performance.
“I wasn’t there that night, and they called me at the hotel,” says Wagner.
“And you came over, and the audience started chanting, ‘Author, author!’” says Tomlin.
“I know. I led the chant,” says Imparato. “I think that was me.”
“The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe: Revisited”
Where: Valentini Theatre, Los Angeles LGBT Center, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood
When: In previews at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Opens 8 p.m. Saturday, then 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 20.
Information: (323) 860-7300, www.lalgbtcenter.org/theatre
Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.