Arts & Entertainment : Friday, September 08, 2000
Lily Tomlin resumes 'The Search'
by Misha Berson
Seattle Times theater critic
New York, September 1985.
"The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe" opens
on Broadway. And its star, Lily Tomlin, and author, Jane Wagner, are tapping
right into the tenor of the times.
Wagner's whirlwind saga about the entwined fates of an array of modern women
plus a few men (all enacted brilliantly by Tomlin, who would earn a 1986 Tony
Award for her labors) is hailed as a deftly au courant chronicle of the age.
The cast of characters includes Trudy, a bag lady in close contact with space
aliens. A teenage punk performance artist. A lesbian impregnated with the help
of some donated sperm and a turkey baster.
And then there's Lyn, a walking encyclopedia of baby-boomer trends. Feminist
consciousness-raising? Geodesic dome-dwelling? Corporate ladder-climbing? Lyn's
been there, done all that.
Fast-forward to Seattle, September 2000.
Tomlin stars in a revival of "The Search" at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
Next she'll take the show to New Jersey's McCarter Theatre, then again to Broadway.
Sitting in a Queen Anne cafe with Tomlin, a compact woman of 61 who looks much
younger, one can't help wonder if she's nervous about dusting off this theatrical
time capsule without updating it.
"No, I feel pretty solid about it," she responds in a friendly manner
that's both breezy and blunt. "To me it's a play. You don't change a play
if it works and it's wonderful."
Does she worry, though, that the text may seem dated now? That some younger
viewers may not get those cracks about Betamax? And G. Gordon Liddy? And former
Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro? (For 1 million dollars:
Which year did Ferraro run? Final answer: 1984.)
"At the time we first did 'The Search,' it seemed so specific," she
agrees, tucking into a piece of mixed-berry pie. "But in terms of the human
experience it is really universal. For me it's about failed dreams, idealism,
cynicism, disillusionment, our connectedness.
"I see it as a kind of poem, as a piece that's extremely funny, that reveals
and illuminates a lot of stuff. Most people are moved by it."
As for the generation gap, Tomlin got the notion to revive the show after doing
excerpts from it for drama students at the University of South California. "All
these kids who'd never seen `The Search' were so enthused, it made me want to
bring it back."
Tomlin admits that she had hoped, by this time, that her longtime collaborator
Wagner would have crafted her a new solo play. But that hasn't come to pass.
"Nobody gets that I'm not the writer here," Tomlin stresses. "Jane
is. I'm always correcting crossword puzzle editors who keep crediting things
she wrote to me."
So why hasn't Wagner penned a new vehicle for her? "She doesn't need to
work like I do. Jane likes to paint and play piano and do other things. My talents
are much narrower - I just love putting stuff up and performing it for people."
Tomlin chortles and adds, "People ask me, how do you and Jane work together?
I tell them I drop to my knees and beg her, `Please write me some material!'"
Though Tomlin is still urging her partner of nearly 30 years to get cracking,
she thinks there's plenty of life left in "The Search."
The script actually had its very first staged reading at Seattle Rep in 1984,
when Tomlin was performing there in another solo show by Wagner, "Appearing
"I read 'The Search' as a little perk for Rep donors," Tomlin recalls.
"It was late at night, and the script ran three hours at that point. It
went so late, a lot of people were nodding out. It wasn't fully formed then
- you knew something was there, but you didn't know what."
Tomlin and Wagner kept refining the piece, testing it out in Seattle again
(in a pre-Broadway run in the summer of 1985) and in New Mexico. "One night
in Santa Fe, (former Richard Nixon aide) John Ehrlichman and (publisher) Rupert
Murdoch were in the audience," Tomlin recalls. "I have no idea what
they made of it."
If they were put off by the funny but empathetic group portrait of women grappling
with the freedoms and contradictions of modern life, that wouldn't ruffle Tomlin.
The Detroit-bred comedian and actress has always been a quirky individualist,
a loopy conversationalist and something of an odd duck in show business.
"I never fit into the system. When I was 18 I read for 'Gidget.' The casting
woman, who looked like Nancy Walker with the big face and big New York accent,
told me, 'Lily, someday there's gonna be parts for people like you and me.'
I knew I had to make them myself."
Introduced to the public as the snorting telephone operator Ernestine, the
wise child Edith Ann and other mirthful personae she brought to the television
show "Laugh-In," Tomlin went on to break new comedic ground in idiosyncratic
TV specials of her own, with writing support from Wagner.
Tomlin expertly portrayed men and women, whites and blacks, pioneering a protean
stand-up format that mingled pathos and psychological acuity with keen satire
and dramatic shape-shifting.
Though an inspiration to many younger comedians, including Whoopi Goldberg
and Kathy Najimy, Tomlin rejects the role of "role model." And she
has been cagey about putting a label on her politics, or her sexuality.
"I'm nobody's poster child," she insists, but admits that "the
feminist movement was very important to me, and the gay movement, too."
And she's proud of narrating "The Celluloid Closet," a documentary
about the images of gays and lesbians in Hollywood film.
Yet when asked if she hopes young people who see "The Search" will
get a greater appreciation of how feminism leveraged more opportunities for
women, Tomlin answers, "That would be nice, but it's not important to me.
"This play really has no agenda. It speaks more to relationships, to the
choices people make when they think they're acting out of some kind of doctrine
or philosophy or political idea. Really, we're all just specks in the universe.
Significant ones, beautiful ones, base and novel ones, yes. But specks."
Though Tomlin hasn't had a monster hit since "The Search" struck
gold, she's stayed busy and industrious. She does comedy "concerts"
and works in movies (including an offbeat, little-seen film of "The Search,"
which debuted at the Seattle International Film Festival in 1991).
She has a cool Web site (www.lilytomlin.com), and TVviewers have known her
as the voice of Mrs. Frizzle in the children's show "The Magic School Bus,"
and Candice Bergen's boss on the sitcom "Murphy Brown."
Tomlin would like her own comedy series, but the networks "keep changing
the ideas I pitch until they turn into something really different," she
says with a shrug.
For creative control, there's nothing like theater: "It's about your own
sensibility. You can go where you want to go with an idea."
Where Tomlin goes, when the conversation gets too earthbound, is off on philosophical
tangents that make her sound like a saner Trudy, the sage bag lady in "Search."
"Here's the seed of everything for me," Tomlin muses. "As a
child I learned very early that my parents had been children once, too, and
that as adults they really didn't know anything. And I couldn't help but look
at them with compassion.
"So I have a very hard time condemning any person, or any character I play, because I think people in general are screwed up. But screwed up in a very sweet and funny way."
Lily on film: varied versatility
Much of Lily Tomlin's best work has been live and on TV, but there is a scattering of movies that spotlight her versatility as a comedic and dramatic actress:
- Misha Berson
Copyright © 2000 The Seattle Times Company