Cecily Strong finds her way to “search for signs…” – Deadline
After 10 seasons in the pressure cooker of Saturday Night Live, Cecily Strong arrives well-groomed, much-loved and well-groomed for her New York stage debut as a solo star in an Off Broadway cover of Jane Wagner Searching for signs of intelligent life in the universe. Good thing too, because jumping into a role so identified with iconic Lily Tomlin must surely require a degree of self-confidence to match the comedy and acting chops required.
Tomlin was already a star when she performed the original Broadway production of The research… in 1985, but Tony’s acclaimed and winning turn became an enduring showcase for the actress, a performance captured for a wider audience in a 1991 film adaptation. She even returned to Broadway in a 2000 revival.
Fulfilling a role so deeply inhabited by its original performer – think Cassie Beck starring in the nationwide touring production of What the Constitution means to me – is undoubtedly a challenge, and Strong, although powerless to supplant all of Tomlin’s memories, encourages us from the start. A less resilient and visually eccentric actor than Tomlin, Strong instead bases his take on the oddity and appealing assortment of characters in the play with a simple, kind, and well-detailed comedic style.
All the more disappointing that The research…, executive produced by Tomlin and Wagner and opening tonight in chic Hudson Yards room The Shed often feels so flat, a victim of material that once seemed quite fresh and of the moment but now, despite a few weak attempts update, looks like a relic. Figures in the foreground of the ’80s – second wave feminists newly intimidated by the quest to have it all, a Patti Smith-style punk poet of the CBGB era, sex workers from The Times Square and even one Aerobics fanatics – a time-stamped signifier if there ever was one – have long lost their edges.
The same goes for our tour guide Trudy, a homeless woman from New York City – she would once have been called a “sack lady” – and a proudly “mad” soul whose body leaping into other characters. forms the structure of the room. “I had the kind of madness that Socrates spoke of,” she tells us. “A divine liberation of the soul from the yoke of custom and convention. I refuse to be intimidated by reality anymore. After all, what is reality anyway: just a collective intuition. In my opinion, this is nonsense disguised as a three-piece suit.
Well, ok. Full praise to Wagner and Strong (and Tomlin, of course, who made Trudy a signature role) for humanizing the people so often overlooked, but after decades in which the homeless population has done nothing but growing, as well as our understanding of the role mental illness plays in crisis, the holy fool’s approach can seem both patronizing and false. Despite all his emotional generosity, the character feels about as current as a VHS exercise tape.
The play’s time-leap premise helps little: The research… is structured like a journey, in a way, with Trudy, awaiting the visit of certain “space buddies”, entering and leaving the various characters which she proposes to the extraterrestrials as clues in their quest for the signs of the title. We never know exactly when, exactly, this is all supposed to take place – it certainly sounds like the ’80s more often than not, but the newly added references to Elon Musk and the internet muddy the waters. Would comedy be best played as a simple period piece? Clearer, perhaps. Better, maybe not.
Performed on a largely nude stage, with flashes of light and static sound effects signaling Strong’s zaps from character to character, The research… depends largely on the versatility of the performer, and in this Strong does not disappoint. She doesn’t have Tomlin’s genius for vocal dexterity – who does? – but she’s a great actress, portraying each character gracefully and convincingly. Anita Yavich’s costume design, with one or two touches, so small, clothing changes helping to define the characters, only fails once: Teenage punk goddess Agnus Angst would chuckle in disgust at the harness not cool of the day-glo party sticks she tied in.
That aside, production is running smoothly under the direction of Silverman, and Strong – who stole the fall season from SNL with her extraordinary “clown abortion” sketch on Weekend Update – controls the place with an ease that shows no sign of intimidation by anyone’s ghost. Let the search for her next life on stage begin.