When you’re used to seeing someone in the two-dimensional plane of a zoom box, finally meeting in person can be magical. And on a Friday afternoon in the Valley, that’s what happened when Cecily Strong and Leigh Silverman wrapped their arms for the first time around Jane Wagner, the doyenne of comedy writing who wrote The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe – the play Strong is currently writing stars and is directed by Silverman and runs through October 23 at the Center Theater Group’s Mark Taper Forum.
“We quote you all day,” says Strong. “All day we just quote Jane Wagner.”
“How can we not end up here at your table?” says Silverman, shaking his head happily.
Wagner, the always gracious host, offers a protein drink “with blueberries, which are said to be a superfood for the brain”.
Marking the second leg of the women’s journey, the Taper Run revitalizes a revival that took place at Manhattan’s Shed Theater during the height of January’s devastating Omicron wave, which explains why the Wagner collaboration was entirely online.
“All of this has happened over the last few years, during some of the darkest of times,” Silverman says, recalling how poignant the play felt as she reconnected with it during the pandemic when she feared she might never go to theater again conduct. “I was so moved by the idea that the connection created in live theater when extraterrestrials visit from space would make them die in amazement.”
Wagner wrote “Intelligent Life” more than three decades ago for her longtime creative partner and wife, Lily Tomlin. Tomlin was already a popular comic when the play premiered on Broadway in 1985. The one-woman show, which requires her guidance to quickly switch between 10+ characters, served as an ideal showcase for Tomlin’s uncanny ability to take on diverse roles with frantic effect. His success cemented her reputation as a comedic legend. Tomlin won a Tony for her performance, and in 1991 the play was reimagined for the film, cementing the work’s place in the pantheon of beloved plays of the 20th century, where it remains firmly entrenched to this day.
“Your writing is so insightful, every line,” Strong tells Wagner. “In the audience, some laugh nervously while others cry. You left it open so everyone will have their own experience while watching this show.”
Slightly iconic, heavily feminist and satisfyingly insane, Intelligent Life is a collection of sketches about the lives of women – a punk rock teenage poet, two sex workers telling their stories to a journalist, a former concert violinist who lost her dreams , only to find himself in a suburban celebrity crisis. These characters are all connected through the imagination or neural misfires of a roving homeless woman named Trudy, who also believes she is herding aliens through the realities of life on Earth.
It’s the kind of play that theater-loving teens dig through in high school drama classes for monologues, and that’s how Strong came to know the material. She fell in love with it so much that decades later, when a message from her agent showed up in her inbox asking if she’d consider reprising Tomlin’s role in a COVID-era revival, she shared her reservations slammed against the horror of being compared to the Grace and Frankie star and almost immediately said yes.
“I’m going to do that, even if it’s a big risk and a scary thing,” says Strong. “I told them ‘Saturday Night Live’ will come second because if we do that, I have to spend time on it.”
As COVID plateaus in a steady, endemic burn, the trio revel in their first face-to-face meeting. A stage manager administers rapid antigen tests at the door – the familiar swabs, tubes and tiny pipettes arranged like hors d’oeuvres on a giant white armchair that bears its massive mass to Tomlin’s legendary character, Edith Ann, a precocious 5-year-old , sits in an oversized rocker and tells hair-raising stories.
Like almost everything in Tomlin and Wagner’s lives, Edith Ann emerged as the result of a fruitful collaboration that began in the early 1970s and continues to this day. Wagner entertains her guests solo – Tomlin leaked an interview in a modest attempt not to steal the limelight from those who have taken the torch she has passed.
Still, like signs of intelligent life in this busy studio full of ephemera from more than 60 years in the nexus of showbiz, evidence of Tomlin is everywhere. In a picture of her and Wagner with the Obamas, of her with Jane Fonda on her lap on the set of Jimmy Kimmel Live, depicted in a love letter handwritten by Wagner and taped to a mirror in the entryway that begins: “Mirror , mirror on the wall, lil is the fairest of them all.”
The women sit at a large glass table in an airy living room with white furniture and a Wurlitzer jukebox. Wagner rules the gathering with playful, tongue-in-cheek seriousness, cracking sly, self-deprecating jokes and showing great deference to her guests. She says the creative connection between Strong and Silverman reminds her of herself and Tomlin, which is why she thinks Tomlin was open to them reinventing such personal material.
“I don’t know who else she would have liked to do,” says Wagner. “She’s very protective in a way.”
Silverman and Strong have forged an intense connection since they began digging into Wagner’s words, unearthing them for meaning that resonates for generations – ideas that ring as true in 2022 as they did at the height of the Reagan era.
For example, a portion that featured a character listening to Betty Friedan was replaced with a 1973 news clip in which Walter Cronkite announced that the Supreme Court had just legalized abortion. That opening night change in taper drew gasps from audiences who had recently experienced exactly the opposite moment when the Supreme Court vacated Roe vs. Wade in June.
As Trudy — the show’s eccentric ringleader — will tell you: Time doesn’t move linearly. In Intelligent Life, the characters’ experiences pinging through a patchwork quilt of hilariously sardonic moments add up to a gestalt finale that questions the connective tissue of the universe while affirming its underlying goodness.
Tip: The latter has to do with humanity’s connection with art — something Wagner knows a smattering of, having explored ideas of artificiality and authenticity as a friend of Andy Warhol. A black-and-white photo of Wagner with Warhol and several large boxes of fabricated Brillo pads are on a shelf next to the table where Wagner is speaking.
Warhol actually wrote a book about Tomlin and Wagner, says Wagner with a laugh, “And he wrote ‘very feminine’, which nobody has ever written before – not about us.”
Tomlin first saw the Intelligent Life revival live on opening night at the Taper, and Wagner recalls that Tomlin was really impressed when she returned home.
“She was so excited,” Wagner tells Strong and Silverman. “She said she couldn’t believe how you found things — you made them your own.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-10-07/cecily-strong-lily-tomlin-search-for-signs-taper-forum Why Cecily Strong is reviving Lily Tomlin’s iconic one-woman show