Ten of L.A.’s finest actresses (and a couple of equally talented guys) deliver superb performances, and the production they are starring in proves one of the year’s most stunningly designed. Still, as was the case when I saw Lily Tomlin perform it as a one-woman showcase back in 1987, I found The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe, Jane Wagner’s collection of (mostly women’s) monologs and occasional multi-character scenes only intermittently engaging in its Los Angeles LGBT Center intimate-stage “revisitation.”
Admittedly, I am not generally a fan of solo shows or monolog compilations. Acting without re-acting to at least one scene partner rarely does it for me, which is probably why my interest peaked in Search For Signs’ occasional pair-ups.
Director Ken Sawyer’s central conceit—having bag-lady guide Trudy, whose days are spent communing with extraterrestrial “space chums,” remain onstage as an observer—is inspired, or at least it is until Trudy (Charlotte Gulezian, wonderfully, weirdly wacko) disappears throughout most of Act Two and the production becomes virtually an entirely different play.
Act One’s collection of characters are for the most part an entertaining bunch, with connections you might not see coming.
There’s’ Chrissy (an effervescent Julia Aks), aerobicizing in Jane Fonda leotard and ‘80s side pony tail while blithely informing us of her life’s many failures.
Paul (understudy Mike Bash, as sweet as he is sexy) contemplates giving up life in the fast lane (sex, drugs, and the gym) while wondering if his onetime sperm donation may mean he’s got a son out there.
Lud and Marie (Joe Hart and Kimberly Jurgen, both homespun perfection) are a couple of old-fashioned, decades-married spouses who can’t fathom how their teenage granddaughter Agnus Angst (a fiery Sasha Pasternak) could have turned out so angry at the world.
Street hookers Tina (Julanne Chidi Hill, adorable) and Brandi (tenderhearted tough girl Rachel Sorsa), the latter of whom doesn’t actually show up till Act Two, have proverbial gold hearts quite unlike their dumb brunette, brassy blonde exteriors.
Playwright Wagner’s monologs are a mixed bunch, at times chatty and even charming, at other times offputtingly performance-artsy, as when Agnus goes off on a seemingly endless rant against parents, grandparents, and society in general.
Still, with Gulezian’s Trudy observing all of the above with an alternating mix of fascination, bemusement, confusion, and even delight, the first half of Sawyer’s re-envisioning of Wagner’s one-woman-show origins makes sense, as both acting showcase and art.
Here, however, Lyn’s extended feminist journey through life makes us feel that we’ve somehow stepped into a completely different show. No longer is Trudy the observer. Heck, she’s even left the stage in search of signs of refreshments, and though Johnson’s Lyn represents some of her richest, most deeply felt work to date, and Bellina Logan and Anny Rosario are terrific as her best chums, fashionable feminist Marge and hard-edged lesbian Edie, I soon lost interest in Lyn’s life.
Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s ingenious scenic design is made even more exciting by Nicholas Santiago’s extravagantly extraterrestrial projections and by Matt Richter and assistant director Adam Earle’s stunning lighting, and costume design Paula Higgins’ costumes are character-defining treats each and every one.
Yusuf Nasir’s choreography to Anna Waronker and Charlotte Caffey’s sparkling original music deserves snaps as well.
Most awe-inspiring of all is Sawyer’s sound design, one that virtually “becomes” the show’s mimed props, including clinking ice cubes, clanking gym weights, and zippers galore. (Kudos too to mime instructor Mo Gaffney.) On the down side, this makes the production’s two or three actual props seem curiously out of place.
The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe: Revisited is produced by Jon Imparato and the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Rebecca Schoenberg is production stage manager. Eric Snodgrass provides additional sound. Richter is technical director and Patricia Sutherland is production manager.
Given its considerable advance buzz, I’d hoped to fall under The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe: Revisited’s spell the second time round. Unfortunately, it ended up as before not this reviewer’s cup of tea.
Understudies Anisha Adusumilli, Bash, Laura Lee Botsacos, Erin Coker, Elizabeth Herron, Carl L. Johnson, Noble, Kimberly Robinson, Shoniqua Shandai, Christine Sloane, and Helen Wilson take center stage on Thursday November 10.
The Davidson/Valentini Theatre, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, The Village at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Los Angeles.www.lalgbtcenter.org/theatre
November 6, 2016
Photos: Ken Sawyer