Of the many lines that have stuck with me since I saw the original Broadway production of “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” in 1985, perhaps the sharpest was the one that seemed aimed directly at my generation of disappointed go-getters.
“All my life, I’ve wanted to be somebody,” a character named Chrissy says, “but I see now I should have been more specific.”
Chrissy attends self-awareness seminars and considers suicide. She is angry at a world that offers “false hopes” but angrier at herself for failing to have it all. “I feel I am somewhat creative,” she explains to a friend after aerobics class. “But somehow I lack the talent to go with it.”
That was never the problem with Jane Wagner’s play; it bristles with barbed insights that have kept me nursing the beautiful bruises for 35 years. And the good news is that in the revival that opened at the Shed on Tuesday night, starring Cecily Strong and directed by Leigh Silverman, many of those barbs are as piercing as ever, breaking the skin of American optimism. Wagner’s existential one-liners amount to a Rosetta Stone of sardonic comedy, an overlooked source of stylings typically attributed to men like Steve Martin, Steven Wright and Will Eno.
Yet because those writers are part of a tradition that has rarely had much of interest to say about women, “Intelligent Life” has always seemed like a necessary corrective. Among the 14 characters Wagner wrote for Lily Tomlin — her partner then, and her wife since 2013 — just two were male; only one, a health nut by day and a cokehead by night, remains in the revised edition presented here.
Though a few other characters have also been cut — including Judith Beasley, the hilarious Tupperware saleslady who shifted to sex toys — the 10 women Strong must play in split-second succession are sufficient to make the show an aerobics class of its own. That puts the focus more squarely on its mixed platter of female frustration. Kate, a socialite, thinks she may actually be dying of boredom. Agnus Angst, a throwaway teenager, screeches her punk poetry at an unloving world. Brandy and Tina, two cheerful prostitutes, get picked up by yet another john who turns out to be just a journalist.
Wagner works hard to particularize these women, but the play, which has over the years lost an intermission and been streamlined into one 95-minute act, has trouble getting started. In part that’s because the characters seem to have been reverse engineered from their aperçus. In her spoken-word act, Agnus intones, “The last really deep conversation I had with my dad was between our T-shirts.” Kate, who once dreamed of being a concert violinist but more recently lost the tip of a finger in a cooking class accident, muses, “What a tragedy if my dream had come true.”
But the problem also derives from the network of random connections that tries to pass as architecture. Chrissy is linked to Kate by a discarded piece of paper; Kate to Brandy and Tina by a hairdresser; and everyone, we gradually understand, to a homeless woman named Trudy who wears pantyhose as a “theater cape” and a coat tasseled with Post-it notes. The play’s characters turn out to be figments of her imagination or emanations caused by her faulty neural wiring.
That was always a bit twee, but today it’s also troublesome. The self-consciously cute Trudy, who claims to be chaperoning a bunch of aliens as they explore the byways of human society, may no longer be such a laughable figure, despite the umbrella hat she wears as a kind of interstellar satellite dish. Homelessness, which in Reagan-era New York City seemed to be a temporary aberration, has since curdled into something more like a structural disaster, making a permanent underclass of economic and mental health victims.
Tomlin got around the problem, if it was one then, by taking a breezy approach, preserving the rhythms of the punch lines at all costs. She had, after all, become famous on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” a loosey-goosey, mile-a-minute variety show.
But Strong’s ability to create and sustain outré characters who nevertheless remain fundamentally believable — a skill developed over 10 seasons on “Saturday Night Live” — works against our comfort in her New York stage debut. It’s harder to laugh at her Trudy, a figure of pathos with a squinty tic and a hunched gait that never lets you forget she is shadowed by danger.
That commitment to at least a nub of naturalism keeps stepping on the jokes; the night I saw the play, a majority of the laughter seemed to come in response to the uncannily timed sounds of zippers zipping, bottle tops popping and water beds sloshing. (The sound design is by Elisheba Ittoop.) Otherwise Silverman’s staging seems to suggest we are in a liminal, performative space, with no set to speak of and with Strong (like Tomlin in the original play, but not the awkward 1991 movie) changing costumes only minimally. And though the lighting (by Stacey Derosier) helps separate the emotions, Strong’s voices are not yet ideally distinct.
But just as I began to wonder whether I had misremembered what Trudy calls “the goosebump experience” — the feeling you get when moved by art — “Intelligent Life” pulled itself together. Dispensing with the variety format, and giving Trudy a 30-minute rest, the second half is mostly devoted to the story of three friends living through second-wave feminism, from the founding of the National Organization for Women to the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment. Edie is the militant one, with “Spanish moss” under her arms. Marge is the cynic: “Honey, you couldn’t be more antiwar,” she tells Edie. “But if it weren’t for Army surplus, you’d have nothing to wear.”
And Lyn is the one caught in between, trying to be both Edie and Marge while also being a wife, a mother of boys, a rape hotline operator and a power-dressing P.R. executive. As the quick-take grievances of the earlier characters, however funny, give way to the ordinary wear-and-tear on women trying to function honorably in a sexist society, the play achieves, and Strong fulfills, the promise of the premise.
That promise is paradoxical: In offering a pull-no-punches satire of self-involved humans, it is nevertheless filled with pity for their disappointments. But instead of seeing that as a fault, perhaps it’s better to say that by finally realizing the need to be “more specific,” “Intelligent Life” eventually replaces the cheap kind of uplift with the real deal. Trudy calls the emotional workout of human life “awerobics.” By the time you get to the play’s killer last line, you may call it a true goosebump experience.
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe
Through Feb. 6 at the Shed, Manhattan; theshed.org. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.