The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe is over May 20, at least on Broadway.
The 1985 Lily Tomlin solo vehicle written and directed by Jane Wagner ends a seven-month Broadway revival run at the Booth Theatre, but co-producer Wagner said a tour is in the works for the show that recently earned a Best Revival Tony Award.
Theatregoers with long memories will recall the show was deemed ineligible for a Best Play nomination 15 years ago because it was perceived as a kind of specialty act for Tomlin. Wagner's script would eventually become a New York Times best seller (despite the fact that The Times theatre critic, Frank Rich, was lukewarm about the play).
The revival of the rare cultural revue — a series of connected and related monologues and scenes — will have played 7 previews and 185 performances by the May 20 close.
Wagner was beaming over the Best Revival Tony Award nomination for her play at the May 16 Tony nominee brunch in Manhattan. But why close the show so quickly after being nommed? Wagner said Tomlin had other obligations and was also fixing up a house in Los Angeles. The Search also earned a Drama Desk Award nomination (for Best Revival). After her final matinee May 20, Tomlin will host the Drama Desk Awards 9-11 PM in Manhattan. In 2000-2001, The Search is now suddenly recognized by the Tony committee as a play, in revival. Wagner and Tomlin are co-producers of the hit. If the work wins the Best Revival of a Play Tony, Wagner will technically win as its producer, not its playwright.
Nevertheless, Wagner told Playbill On-Line "it's very sweet," and admitted she felt she had written a play, and the fact that her work was overlooked was hurtful.
"Because Lily is Lily in the play, I think it was understandably a little bit confusing the first time," Wagner said. "This is a wonderful acknowledgement. I'm really thrilled. I wanted to tell myself it wouldn't get [a nomination] so I wouldn't be too hopeful, and then when I got it I realized how much it meant to me. This was a great affirmation."
Wagner said the show will go on tour after its Broadway run, and there are hopes for a run in London. "None of this has been finalized, but it looks like we will be in San Francisco during this summer," Wagner said, adding that other dates are expected.
"We want to tour this," she explained. "Lily loves this and gets no greater pleasure than to do this. She never gets burned out from it. Nothing rewards her as much."
Why haven't we seen a play from Wagner in the past 15 years?
"Don't embarrass me," Wagner laughed. "Lily asks me that every day. I've been doing other things. I really did stop to smell the roses and I've been enjoying life and growing in many different ways. I'm not as prolific as Terrence McNally."
The doors to the Booth Theatre, the intimate Broadway house that proved pure gold for Dame Edna last season, opened Nov. 11 for the first preview of the return engagement of the Lily Tomlin-Jane Wagner collaboration, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.
The solo show won Tomlin a Tony Award in 1986. The play, in which Tomlin plays a collection of offbeat, heartbreaking, hopeful and humorous characters, is directed by Wagner.
Designers on board to help create the skewed worlds of the seriocomic monologue-playlets are Klara Zieglerova (scenic), Ken Billington (lighting), G. Thomas Clark and Mark Bennett (sound). Tomlin had something of a tryout for the returning Broadway run: She toured a trim concert version of the play to 30 cities between September and December 1999. Fall 2000 dates at Seattle Repertory Theatre (Sept. 6-Oct. 7) and McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ (Oct. 17-Nov. 5) played before Broadway. Official opening for the limited engagement at the Booth was Nov. 16, 2000. Performances were to continue 10 weeks to Jan. 21, 2001, but multiple extensions followed. The show recouped its investment.
Tomlin, known for her quirky characters on TV's "Laugh-In" and "Murphy Brown," and in films such as "Nashville" and "9 to 5," won a Best Actress Tony Award in 1985-86 for playing Wagner's varied series of scenes and characters. The script is loaded with incisive seriocomic observations about post 1960s cultural attitudes, expectations and consequences. Wagner, her longtime collaborator, failed to get a nomination. The script of the play, however, became a best-seller and has been re-released by Harper Collins to coincide with this Broadway run.
The show set out on a successful national tour in 1990-91. In the original, Tomlin played a punker teen, a wise bag lady, hookers, a fitness freak, a husband, a lesbian editor and more.
One of the more celebrated lines of the play had a character named Lynn, struggling to be a superwoman, observing, "If I had known what it would be like to have it all, I might have settled for less."
The 1999 tour was considered an exploratory reapproach to see how the material played more than a decade after it premiered. Wagner said there were minor changes, but no "updates" or additions.
Tomlin is a Detroit native who rose to fame on late 1960s TV and graduated to films such as "All of Me," "Incredible Shrinking Woman," "Moment by Moment" (directed by Wagner), "Nashville" and, recently, "Tea With Mussolini."
Her previous Broadway show, Appearing Nitely, in 1977, earned her a Special Tony Award.