It's not often I pay attention to the music being played before a show begins. But as we shuffled into Stages Repertory Theatre ready to watch this latest incarnation of Jane Wagner's hit show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, I couldn't help noticing the selection sounded like a hits-of-the-1980s compilation album. Shuffling to our seats was accompanied by none other than the likes of "Safety Dance" (Men Without Hats), "Burning Down the House" (Talking Heads) and "Rapture" (Blondie). Perhaps the tech crew was made up of a bunch of fortysomethings nostalgic for their high school dances (not that there's anything wrong with that, says this fortysomething-year-old critic). But as the show began and the issues with script and treatment piled up and up, I also couldn't help thinking that the aforementioned music was some kind of omen or metaphor for how this once beloved play was now suffering the disease of dialogue datedness and superannuated stage style.
Written in 1985 as a one-woman star vehicle for comedian Lily Tomlin, Search for Signs was a huge success for Wagner, a longtime collaborator of Tomlin's and eventual romantic partner (the two were married in 2014). The show played to critical acclaim on Broadway, won Tomlin the Tony for her performance, and was lauded with a New York Drama Critics' Circle Special Award as well as the New York Drama Desk for a "Unique Theatrical Experience." A hardcover version of the script spent several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and in 1991 the piece was adapted into a movie version starring Tomlin.
So, yes. This was a show that shone brightly in its day. For almost two and a half hours, Tomlin played a panoply of quirky, stressed-out, self-obsessed characters grappling with existential issues and the elusive meaning of life. Jokes were made, aphorisms tossed out like candy and Tomlin wowed all with her wizardry at multiple character portrayals and her knack for making us giggle.
But now it's 30 years later and it's not Tomlin onstage. To be fair, the talented Denise Fennell, who takes on the one-woman challenge in this show, does a fine job with most of the material. Houstonians may know her from her turns the past couple of years as Sister Christian in Stages' Late Night Catechism series. Fennell is a performer who can take the stage solo and own it for long periods of time, and she does so with several of the 12 intertwined characters she's tasked with.
Trudy, the crazy, Post-it Note-collecting, philosophical bag lady who talks to aliens and channels other humans via her botched shock treatment, is an intriguingly hunched, twitchy, ear-scratching, gravelly-voiced portrayal by Fennell. Her turns as a hopeful but potentially suicidal aerobics gal, a shopping-channel sex-toy hawker and a society lady who is "bored with being bored" are all wonderfully conjured. Less successful are Fennell's gratingly unmodulated angsty teenager and a duo of prostitutes, who all seem to prefer yelling over speaking. In the second act, which weirdly changes style from multi-story to one overly protracted decade-long narrative addressing women's lib, Fennell does her best to keep our interest playing a group of women coming of age in the Ms. magazine era. But by the time the central character deals with her life's unravelling, we've been asked for too much of our time and attention for Fennell to make us care.
But the issue here really isn't the performance; it's what's being performed. Under director Kenn McLaughlin's exhaustingly fast-paced staging, Search for Signs is like a runaway train chugging out sitcommy one-liners and outmoded meditations on life over and over with no break in sight. "If olive oil comes from olives and peanut oil from peanuts, where does baby oil come from?" muses one character. "I've a great cure for sobriety; it's called alcoholism," says another. As the glue that ties the show and the characters together, Trudy the bag lady gets more contemplative lines to deliver. "I think we developed language because of our deep-down need to complain." Writing like this may have been comically revelatory back in the Cathy cartoon/Erma Bombeck days, but today it lands like a mildly amusing fridge magnet platitude, forgotten and stuck dejectedly on the side of the icebox.
If the comedy style here feels dated in a post-Seinfeld/The Office world in which meditations on life have gone from punch lines to longer-form satirical contempt, then the content of much of the comedy feels ridiculously passé. Warhol jokes, Kennedy nostalgia, nods to Opium perfume, Days of Our Lives music and the touting of phone sex as the next big entrepreneurial thing are peppered throughout the show. Not to elicit sentimental laughter, but as the real-time present-day hooks on which the comedy relies. No doubt the inclusion of Search for Signs' Geraldine Ferraro "I am woman hear me roar" moments was part of the prescient charm audiences fell for originally. We all like to see our lives and interests displayed back to us onstage. But today, without a nostalgia blanket to warm us through this seemingly endless barrage of outmoded references, all we can manage is a cool half-hearted smile.
Design-wise, the show is also a disappointment. Kirk Domer's simple black and white set does echo the sparseness of the production (Fennell remains clad in yoga gear and a ponytail throughout the show, with nothing but her acting chops to transform into character). But his referential Post-it Note-like squares that are hung and projected on the back of the stage seem like a half-baked idea. Occasionally illustrative words or drawings appear on them to unnecessarily and infectively compliment the action onstage. But most of the time they are simply ignored or made to look like dirty paper.
Even with all of the production's flaws, one has to give full props to Fennell, who truly does work her butt off in this show. But working hard at something that just doesn't work anymore doesn't make it spring back to life. Perhaps the intelligent signs that needed to be read here were the ones that foretold this was a comedy better left on the shelf.
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe Through February 15. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. 713-527-0123, www.stagestheatre.com.
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