Unless she’s a superwoman, you won’t be seeing Cecily Strong on “Saturday Night Live” tonight. From now through February 6th she’s performing a one woman, many dozens of characters play at The Shed in Hudson Yards.
No one but Lily Tomlin has ever appeared before in Jane Wagner’s “The Search of Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.” Wagner, who is a comic genius, is also Tomlin’s lifelong partner, and they crafted the show to fit the gifted actress and comedienne — Just as they crafted her earlier Broadway show and touring piece that I saw in 1977.
“The Search” took off in 1985 and was revived many times. Some times I cringed because there were dated references. But for this new edition, Wagner has cleaned it up and moved it into 2021. Why not? “The Search” was always a modern piece about the universe, the cosmos, existence, and quantum theory. So the digital age is its natural home. Talk of algorhythms controlling our lives has never made more sense.
Cecily Strong seemed when announced to be a perfect choice to take the baton from Tomlin. She’s not as wily and subversive, but her “SNL” work has shown a diverse array of work. She doesn’t disappoint as she guides us through all the characters. (Some of the original character, like Mrs. Beasley, have been edited from this version, which was trimmed down to 90 minutes without intermission. I miss them. But you can’t have everything.)
The main character is Trudy, a homeless woman who’s in touch with outer space. The world is much more PC now about the homeless, but Wagner and Tomlin always appreciated with great warmth the idea of these mentally detached others roaming around, making sense to themselves if not the larger world. Really, come to my neighborhood and I can introduce you to a lot of Trudy’s. Strong infuses hers with love and dignity, but also an out there sense of humor that turns out to be maybe more ‘with it’ than you’d imagine.
“The Search” is full of wonderfully profound one liners, all of which Strong landed with big and knowing laughs. Some of them are: “I made some studies, and reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it. I can take it in small doses, but as a lifestyle, I found it too confining. It was just too needful; it expected me to be there for it all the time, and with all I have to do–I had to let something go.”
Another one: “All my life, I’ve always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific.”
The audience at The Shed (a beautiful new industrial type theater, well ventilated, and not virus-terrifying at all), on the night I went, was mostly youngish, and probably there as “SNL” fans. That’s ironic, since Tomlin — a graduate of “Laugh In,” was a revered comic when she hosted that show in 1975, 1976, and ’83. (I wish they’d have her back now.) The audience may not have been familiar with the material, so their laughs seemed to be punctuations after listening intently to the unusually rich and deep wordiness of Wagner’s monologues. This is not the way things are written now for a dumbed down audience. But they got it. And for someone like me, there from the beginning, “The Search” with Cecily Strong was a total pleasure.
So we’ll miss Cecily on “SNL” for a bit, but if you’re in New York, and you can get a ticket, you’ll get to have a throwback moment of live performance. “The Search” is on, and there are many great discoveries.
PS I met some people after the show who actually had an umbrella hat, Trudy’s signature piece of clothing. They said they bought it on amazon. The Shed should have really purchased some and stamped their logo on them with the show’s name. That’s a missed opportunity!