‘The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe’ and ‘Character Man’ at Stages
by Donalevan Maines
The biggest deal about Lily Tomlin winning the 1986 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play, for The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, is the recognition that Tomlin performed a one-woman play, and not just a standup routine.
“It has been one of my favorite plays for 30 years,” says Kenn McLaughlin, the producing artistic director at Stages Repertory Theatre, who directs Denise Fennell in the show at Stages this month.
Tomlin already had a “special” Tony Award from 1977 for performing the first one-woman show on Broadway, Appearing Nitely. Barry Manilow and Diana Ross also won “special” Tonys that year, while Best Actress in a Play went to Julie Harris, as poet Emily Dickinson in a one-character play, The Belle of Amherst, by William Luce.
So when Tomlin’s longtime partner and the show’s writer/director, Jane Wagner, penned The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, they insisted that it was a play and not just standup. So Tomlin was entered in the Best Actress in a Play derby that included Oscar winner Jessica Tandy in The Petition, Tony winner Rosemary Harris in Hay Fever, and Mary Beth Hurt (the original Meg Magrath in Crimes of the Heart) in Benefactors. When it was announced that Tomlin won the award, she kissed Wagner before leaving her seat to accept her Tony.
The couple married this past New Year’s Eve after 42 years together.
In Houston, Fennell has built an ardent following as Sister in the theater’s Late Night Catechism shows. Now she stars as Trudy, a perceptive bag lady, and fills the shoes of a dozen other quirky Earthlings whom Trudy introduces to visiting extraterrestrials in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.
The show plays in repertory with performances of out actor Jim Brochu’s one-person musical Character Man. They share the same design team and essential technical elements, but McLaughlin says, “The theater will be transformed from one night to the next to create a unique environment for each piece.”
In September 1985 (after a national tryout tour that included a few nights at Houston’s Tower Theater), Tomlin transformed Broadway’s Plymouth Theatre into a fantasia of hot topics, with the playbill announcing her as the sole purveyor of her partner (now wife) Jane Wagner’s comedic critique of contemporary society. In addition to Trudy, Tomlin portrayed Lynn, Vince, Brandy, Marge, Lud, Tina, Agnus Angst, Lily, Judith Beasley, Kate, Edie, and frustrated overachiever Chrissy, who concedes, “All my life I’ve always wanted to be somebody. But now I see I should have been more specific.”
McLaughlin was mesmerized by Tomlin’s performance on Broadway. “It was a seminal, life-changing moment,” he says. “[Tomlin presented] really intellectually stimulating, marvelous, awe-inspiring ideas about humanity and our future—all the more so because they were embodied in one actor, so you saw all of this mystery and wonder of we as human beings, all existing in one body. It was mind-blowing.”
Eager to direct a production, he says, “I thought, ‘One day I’ll find an actor who can do this.’”
McLaughlin adds, “When the first Catechism opened two years ago with Denise, I literally saw her in the role [of Trudy et al]. One gesture, and suddenly she’s some other person.”
Fennell “came out of comedy, the same as Lily,” he says, calling Tomlin “the ultimate character actor—probably the most brilliant character actress of our time.”
McLaughlin hopes his production at Stages will celebrate Wagner as an outstanding playwright. “The play really is an amazing woman’s voice, a lesbian’s voice, so I have a real sense of pride honoring that,” he explains. “This play will survive hundreds of years and ages, and to know that it was written by one of ours—an openly gay person, ahead of her time, in our age—that’s nice.
“It’s as relevant today as it ever was,” adds McLaughlin. “In some ways, it predicted the longing for connectivity we see today with the Internet and social media. We seek a sense of community and desire to be close and learn about people far away. The play looks at that same impulse.”
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Alternating at Stages with The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe is Jim Brochu in Character Man, his musical valentine to the memorable character actors of Broadway’s golden age, including Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, Barney Martin, and Brochu’s own mentor, two-time Tony Award-winner David Burns.
Packed with iconic songs from Meredith Willson, John Kander and Fred Ebb, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, and Stephen Sondheim, Character Man is part cabaret, part oral history, and all heart.
A critic for the New York Times called Brochu’s show a “blend of cabaret, theater and scrapbook,” adding that “walks down memory lane are rarely so entertaining.”
This is McLaughlin’s eighth season as producing artistic director at Stages, following six seasons as managing director.
What: The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (alternating with Character Man)
When: Through February 15
Where: Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway
Details: Tickets (which start at $19) are available at stagestheatre.com or by calling 713.527.0123.
Donalevan Maines also writes about Kinky Boots in this issue of OutSmart magazine.