Cecily Strong finds 'Signs of Intelligent Life' in a celebrated one-woman show
Back in 1985, Lily Tomlin made a splash on Broadway in a one-person play, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by her now wife, Jane Wagner. Playing a dozen characters, Tomlin won a Tony Award, starred in a film version, and triumphally returned to Broadway in 2000. Now, the play is being revived again, off-Broadway, starring Saturday Night Live performer Cecily Strong.
"I have to be me in it, because there's just too much else going on—if I'm trying to also play Lily Tomlin, forget it!" Strong says, laughing. Among the characters she embodies is Trudy, a homeless sage who's kind of the tour guide of the play. "She's sort of a Shakespearean clown, in a sense, and it was always the clowns [that] show us the truths about ourselves," Strong explains.
"I think she's just doing a tremendous job," says Tomlin, from the home she and Wagner share in California. The two are executive producers of this new version, which is being performed at The Shed in Manhattan. They've been watching the show's progress, via video. "It's great fun to see," Tomlin says.
When the arts complex asked Leigh Silverman if there was a play she'd like to direct, she thought of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. "There are stories that feel like they connect us after a time of such isolation," says Silverman. "And I reread it, and I was blown away at how prescient Jane was, how relevant the play felt, how humane the play felt, how funny it still felt."
Still, she didn't know who should star in it until she watched an SNL sketch in which Strong played Fox News host Judge Jeanine, singing "My Way" while diving into a box of wine.
"And I was like, that's it," Silverman says. "Like, this searing political commentary, the unbelievable comedic chops, the total fearlessness."
Strong performs a series of sharply defined characters, and, as the play goes on, the audience begins to discover connections between these disparate people, all of whom are searching for something – from a teenage performance artist to a blasé Manhattan matron.
"I can hear the audience... when people start making connections, it makes them emotional," Strong says. "It's funny to hear some people laugh, while I hear some people crying."
Wagner wrote the piece for Tomlin's shape-shifting talents. "I never thought of Lily having any problem doing different characters," Wagner explains. "To do stories within a bigger story seemed just naturally there, in the way I was thinking. I wanted to do something about humanity—which sounds so grandiose, but sometimes I can be grandiose!"
She sent Tomlin "pages and pages," while she was on the road and they sometimes gave guerilla performances of the material, to try it out. "Between dates on the road," says Tomlin, "we would... go down to San Diego and we'd leaflet cars and bookstores. And we would do a show at the Globe's workshop or at the Opera House or wherever we could get an open stage. And we'd just leaflet. And I remember one of the ads we used to have was 'no costumes, no props, no actors.' We would do that kind of thing, you know? But I was so hugely popular from television that all we had to do was say, 'Lily is doing new material.' And we tried to stay below the radar."
The new production is important for Tomlin because, she says, "I really wanted Jane's authorship to stand, because so often I get thrown into the whole mix and they talk about collaborative and so on. And in truth, Jane is a solitary writer, and that's it. She does write it all."
Tomlin is quick to congratulate Strong, as well. "She certainly has worked so hard and done so well," Tomlin says. "And just in taking all that verbiage in, and translating it into a performance, and the connections that have to be made."
Strong is not just a performer, but a writer on Saturday Night Live. During the season, she met weekly with Silverman to go over Wagner's play. Strong says one sketch she wrote and performed after Supreme Court arguments about the Texas abortion law helped her feel like she could do Wagner's politically incisive material. She played Goober the Clown, who had an abortion the day before her 23rd birthday. After the funny, painful, personal sketch aired, she recalls, she told Silverman, "Now I feel I've earned this show a little bit more, because it felt like that: 'OK, I'm brave enough to do that; I think I'm one step closer to earning this show.'"
Once the SNL season ended, Strong and Silverman staged Signs quickly. "I can't believe the amount of work we did in four weeks," Strong says. "But I was eating, drinking, sleeping, breathing [it].
"Jane Wagner has been living in my head now," Strong adds, laughing, "which is sort of a delightful thing."
Wagner's play ends by acknowledging the audience. In Silverman's view, that sentiment resonates more strongly in the midst of the pandemic. "She thanks the audience inside of the play," Silverman says. "Like, what play does that? It's written from a very generous place."
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