"The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe is a compendium of pop history, a living anthropological exhibit. That makes it funny, grab-your-sides funny. But it is also a chronicle of the human heart, trying to mend its bruises, and ease its disappointments. And that makes it sublime -- catch-your-breath sublime."
--David Richards, Washington Post
"It is a dazzling, divinely human comedy!"
--Jack Kroll, Newsweek
"Miss Wagner . . . sums up a generation of social history into a tightly compressed saga. The audience is drawn completely into the goosebump experience, and who can stop tingling long enough to resist?"
--Frank Rich, New York Times
"It is a work of genius and compassion."
It's decidedly upbeat and affirming social history, a kind of Gulliver's Travelogue of the latter half of the 20th century. All the disparate characters are tied together like some masterfully wrought bracelet, stones that make less of an impression apart suddenly dazzle when they reflect one another.
Serving as narrator is Trudy, a mad bag lady who has befriended aliens from outer space here to take a look at "a planet in puberty." She alone is alert to the wonders of the universe (because she practices "awe-robics"). "Language", she says, "developed out of our deep inner need to complain. . . . What's reality, anyway? Nothin' but a collective hunch." Trudy threads her way through the play, giving it an oddly appealing spirituality.
There's Agnus Angst, the 15-year-old precocious punk performance artist who girds herself in zippers and chains and tells a radio psychologist that she's been kicked out of her house by her bioengineer father and wants to know if it's legal. She confesses that when she looks at her family, she feels "like a detached retina."
There are her grandparents, Lud and Marie, who both look "like Don Knotts, only plumper." They sadly lament that Agnus has "the manners of a terrorist," yet remember her best as a little girl with a chocolate milk mustache, and don't know where things went wrong.
There's Kate, the jaded socialite stuck under a hairdryer that's drying her heart's blood as well, whose equally jaded husband doesn't even notice she's lost the tip of a finger to their Cuisinart.
There's Paul, a used-to-be swinger and sometime sperm donor, who peaked during the disco days a decade ago. Now a health nut by day and coke head by night, he finds his libido in limbo and his life on hold.
And there's Lily Tomlin the actress, who worries "no matter how cynical we become, it's never enough to keep up."
The climax is a dazzling job of writing by Wagner, a barbed but compassionate evocation of the changes wrought by feminism,4 a hilarious saga of dreams collapsing, sexual arrangements backfiring, good intentions souring and bandwagons careening off the track.
There's Edie, a '70's radical feminist who thought she was going to change the system, but now has the post-feminist realization that the system's changed her. And Marge, a casualty of casual sex. And Lyn, who marries Bob, the perfect feminist's mate ("he was the only man I ever met who knew where he was when Sylvia Plath died"). Reading The Wall Street Journal on acid, Bob resolves to become a "holistic capitalist whose only profit motive is that everybody profits." But utopia crumbles: "it's hard to be politically conscious and upwardly mobile at the same time," sighs Lyn.
"The intellectual fireworks are illuminating. It is genuinely a comedy about the way we are."
-- Clive Barnes