The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe has its opening night on January 11 at The Shed. Performances will run through February 6.

By Elazar Abrahams

I entered the warehouse-like theater on the third floor of The Shed not knowing much about the show I was there for. It had a funny name – The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe – and starred Cecily Strong, one of favorite Saturday Night Live cast members. Most intriguingly, the show starred her alone.

“The Search,” as we’ll call it for shorthand, sees Strong inhabiting around 13 different characters. They span across age, gender, and class status. The plot is quite difficult to describe, because if there is any, it was hard to follow. Trudy, the character we start off with, is a self-described “crazy” homeless woman who has made contact with extraterrestrials. These aliens are mining her for information on the human experience, hence Trudy connecting them with the other 12 characters Strong masterfully jumps in and out over the course of the show’s 90-minute runtime.

Strong is bursting with talent. She’s a great fit for this piece, which was originated by the legendary Lily Tomlin in the 70s. In many ways, Strong is a spiritual successor to Tomlin herself; both excel in sketch comedy and character building. Strong has been on SNL for years now, and while I first became a fan of hers when she did Weekend Update alongside Seth Meyers, she is at her best when getting to run wild with bits like The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party and Cathy Ann. It was a joy to get to see her in her element. She seamlessly swaps between a deadbeat husband and a young punk girl, all without a costume change. Its her accent and mannerisms that let the audience know which of the many characters on the roster we are looking at now.

And yet, the show left me empty. The dialogue is pseudo-intellectual. Playwright Jane Wagner is attempting to displaying the idea of human connectiveness, but all we get are stale vignettes that meet each other in the last 15 minutes. When the lights came up, I was simply confused. The script is just boring, and I dozed off more than once. We don’t get enough time to really understand each character, except for a notable exception. In the back half, one of the women explored gets ample time for us to care about her story, as we are taking through her whole marriage and journey into motherhood. It was one of the rare times during The Search that I felt engaged in what Strong was doing.

I felt like I was missing something. How could this play that put me to sleep be considered a cult classic some New York theater circles? Later in the week, I threw on the movie version of the Lily Tomlin production. It was really well done. It still wasn’t my thing, but her charisma oozes out from the screen. She acts circles around Cecily. Finally, the characters clicked together just a bit more. So perhaps that’s what the issue with this version was. If you’re looking for a fun night out, I’d recommend picking another show, but if you have fond memories of The Search from your youth, it might be cool to see a new face take on the challenge.

Honestly, the coolest part of the whole thing is The Shed itself! I had never been to the relatively new art space in Hudson Yards, but I’ll definitely be back. It had a futuristic feel and houses theater as well as art exhibitions. The café on the ground floor looked pretty chic too.