The unseen aliens in Jane Wagner’s play The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe have set themselves a challenge, to be sure. Is there intelligent life here on Earth? A given evening’s prime-time TV lineup may not provide an ironclad argument. These visitors have therefore retained Trudy, a New York bag-lady with a taste for fried clams and a slippery grasp on sanity, as a “creative consultant” in their search. Trudy aims to help them understand what makes humans tick — or at least show them the astonishing spectrum of dysfunction we can exhibit and still somehow manage to keep the species ticking.
Trudy (Joy Vandervort-Cobb) is fully aware of her cognitive shortcomings. “Going crazy,” she says, “was the best thing that ever happened to me. With all the things I have to do, I had to let something go.” But she’s using them to her advantage: An ability to channel other people — a side effect of electroshock therapy — gives her cosmic friends a firsthand look at just how hopeless, and hopeful, a primitive lifeform we are.
Lily Tomlin first performed her longtime partner’s play on Broadway in 1985 and again for a revival (which this writer saw) in 2000. In Carolina Stage’s one-weekend production at Footlight Theatre, playing Trudy, the aliens, and a population of Manhattan residents the size of a Denny’s dinner crowd, Vandervort-Cobb is a marvel. Without props or a change of clothes, she drops in and out of a dozen or so characters, inhabiting each with nuanced vocal and physical transformations that make each immediately recognizable. That crowd is as disparate as an egoistic Brooklyn bodybuilder, a pair of hard-bitten prostitutes, a bored Upper West-Side doyenne with a million-dollar accent, a 15-year-old angry punk rocker with hair “the color of Fruit Loops” named Agnes, and Agnes’ grandparents, bickering Southern transplants named Lud and Marie, the latter of which can turn the word “oink” into a three-syllable declaration. Then there’s Lyn, Marge, and Edie, three friends struggling together through the vicissitudes of dating, marriage, corporate careers, child-raising, and affairs with yoga instructors.
Dressed in black with her hair piled atop her head, Vandervort-Cobb stalks the stage amid the barest of sets: a couple of straight-backed chairs, and a short staircase that leads nowhere, all set against a black backdrop with a spare line-art projection that changes to reflect the setting. When not channelling other people, Trudy keeps us apprised of her progress with her “space chums.” She pulls invisible Post-it notes from her clothing and reads short reminders of homo sapiens’ ironies and mysteries: “Man is thought to have first walked upright to free the hands for masturbation.”
Yet there’s much more to Search for Signs than giggles and acting pyrotechnics. The play’s greatest strengths lie in its humanity. The characters on display here are real people; if they’re funny it’s because they’ve been written — and performed — straight. When Lud and Marie stop pecking at each other long enough to reflect on how much happier Agnes seemed as a little girl, they recall how she laughed at seeing them with milk mustaches and share a sweet moment toying with the idea of welcoming her home thusly from her evening’s vitriolic spoken-word gig at the UnClub. Of course we, and they, know full well there’s probably no more direct route to the top of a teenager’s shit list.
“People don’t need sex as much as they need to be listened to,” Tina, one of the prostitutes, later tells a fellow taxi passenger. Her cohort Brandy quips, “Uh huh, that’s the first thing they teach you after fellatio.”
It’s not hyperbole to say Vandervort-Cobbs’ performance is head and shoulders above nearly anything that’s appeared on a Charleston stage in recent years outside of Spoleto Festival USA — and she wouldn’t have seemed at all out of place in Spoleto’s recent Solo Turns series. James Wilcox’s sound design is equal to its actress: Vandervort-Cobbs’ mimed actions are often accompanied by perfectly synchronized effects that land like audible gems: the clink of gym weights, a zipper opening, a taxi’s electric window going down while the crowd noise outside rises, ice cubes tossed into a glass, darts thonking into a board.
Any faults with the production — and I’m grasping here — feel like quibbles. With its references to EST, feminism, umbrella hats, and sensory deprivation tanks, the play feels its age. The backdrop projection trembles throughout the show from Vandervort-Cobbs’ on-stage exertions, and sometimes the actress distracts a little with her constant dabbing at perspiration. Also, 150 minutes is an awful long running time for a play not written by either William Shakespeare or Arthur Miller.
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe is the first offering from director Rob Daniels’ new company, which plans to regularly bring top talents like Wilcox and production designer Lauren Duffie in from New York. Near the show’s end, Trudy relates taking her aliens to see a play so they can understand a “goosebump experience.” By mistake, they watch the audience instead of the play. As with Trudy’s space chums, there were goosebumps galore to be had at Footlight Theatre, no matter which direction you looked.