By Ron Fassler . . .

When I first saw The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, the year was 1985 and I had been a fan of Lily Tomlin’s since I was twelve years old. Like so many, I tuned in weekly to see what new character this exceptional young comedienne would come up with next as part of the ensemble of TV’s Laugh-In, an uproarious, anarchic comedy series that made stars of many people, none more enduring than Tomlin. At eighty-two, she only recently wrapped the 7th and final season of Grace & Frankie opposite Jane Fonda. For Search, written by Jane Wagner, Tomlin’s life partner for decades (and wife since 2013), Tomlin received a Tony as Best Actress in a Play for playing fourteen roles (men as well as women). She continued with the show, performing it in Los Angeles in 1986 (where I saw it again), filming it in 1991, and even brought it back to Broadway in 2000.

Now with a new production which opened last night at the 500-seat Griffin Theatre, located at The Shed in Hudson Yards, it’s finally someone else’s turn to step into the batter’s box. Cecily Strong, a beacon of hilarity on Saturday Night Live for the past ten seasons, is taking on the unenviable task of filling Tomlin’s shoes. If she doesn’t quite hit a home run, Strong distinguishes herself admirably. Anyone who is a fan of her work and curious to see her live on stage won’t go home unhappy.

The praise Tomlin received was not only for hilariously fulfilling so many characters, but for bringing out the light (and darkness) in Wagner’s play. Its sharp, comic observations worked brilliantly as a piece of theatre, especially in the eighties when the conformities of Reaganism made it feel as if nostalgia for the fifties was going to permanently take hold. Wagner’s propensity for aphorisms were welcome as they were unusually clever, and Tomlin nailed every one of them. If a line like “What’s the point of being a hedonist if you’re not having a good time?” doesn’t appeal to you, then nothing in Wagner’s play will.

Formerly done in two acts with an intermission, it is now presented in 100 minutes with no interval (and whittled down to ten characters with one male). Sadly, the evening feels longer, which can’t have been the intention. And what director Leigh Silverman has devised for Strong as a performing space doesn’t allow her to work the room. Yes, she is on an empty stage just as Tomlin was, but Tomlin possessed that space and Strong merely spends time in it. Silverman, along with scenic designers Mary Hamrick and Christine Jones, have staged the action on a stage too high and wide for one person to stride back and forth comfortably. And what little there is in the way of design (some backstage ephemera out in the open) fails to offer anything Strong can work off. Even the cart she pushes as Trudy the Bag Lady isn’t a rusty old metal one stolen from a Gristedes. It looks more like a laundry basket you see prisoners escape in in old Hollywood movies.

As a play, Search concerns itself with disparate characters that have little to do with one another, and yet they do. One of the key things that makes it work is that the more time we spend with them, the more we discover that their paths intersect (even if some of them aren’t aware of it). Led by Trudy, awaiting the arrival of her “space chums,” aliens that she communes with by way of an umbrella hat she wears adorned with an old TV antenna, the character serves as a narrator offering her unique takes on everything under the sun—from soup to art. And since the play begins with Trudy, a character that Tomlin made uniquely her own, Strong needed to take charge immediately and boldly. But whether Silverman reigned her in, or the choice was mutual, it was not wise to have Strong hold back. She doesn’t embrace the looniness of the character. She brings her down to earth, which isn’t really where Trudy belongs.

That said, as the play progresses, Strong gets stronger. When things take a turn in the final third of the evening, where suddenly we are involved in a play within the play, Strong is outstanding. The telling of the story of Lynn and her attempts over the years to find herself while simultaneously falling in love, keeping a job, having a child, losing her husband to a male’s typical mid-life crisis, and losing a friend to suicide, is deeply satisfying. Comical and sad, painful, and uplifting, we are finally involved in a way that makes for fine theatre, especially due to the inventive sound design created by Elisheba Ittoop.

If some of the play lacks the punch it once had, well… creating something timeless is not an easy trick. But Jane Wagner’s writing here is not to be discounted. It was never just a vehicle for Lily Tomlin to shine. At the end of the day, I appreciate The Search for Intelligent Signs in the Universe now as much as I did then, snags and all.

The Search for Intelligent Signs in the Universe is playing at The Shed’s Griffin Theater, 545 West 30th Street, NYC 10001 in a limited engagement now through February 6th.

Photos: Kate Glicksberg for The Shed