Back in 1986, when Jane Wagner's one-woman show for Lily Tomlin was having its first run on Broadway, the Tony Awards committee ruled that it was not a proper play. Thus, the search for intelligent life in the universe proved yet again to be fruitless. One thing that should be clear from its triumphant return to Broadway is that "The Search ..." is a very considerable work of contemporary American drama. Far from being a mere vehicle for Tomlin's extraordinary virtuosity, it is a coherent and ambitious play in its own right. It is not, admittedly, a play of the usual kind. Instead of focusing on a small group of characters, it presents a kaleidoscope of American humanity, from a rich, bored society lady to a pair of prostitutes. Instead of taking place in a clearly defined place, it happens both inside the head of a deranged bag lady and in New York, Indianapolis and Los Angeles. As if this were not enough variety, Wagner's script also moves through an astonishing diversity of tones and moods, from quick-fire witticisms to droll observations to despairing sighs. But all of this really does add up to more than the sum of its parts. Wagner's theme is that everything is connected, and over 23 scenes, she joins up all the dots to make a hilarious, heartbreaking portrait of a society in search of a meaning. Holding it all together, of course, is Lily Tomlin herself. With astounding skill and unflagging energy, she zaps through the channels like a human remote control. What makes all the images add up to a coherent picture is a deceptively simple device. Tomlin's central persona is Trudy, a bag lady who believes that she is in touch with aliens and that she can tune in and out of other people's lives. Being Trudy allows Tomlin to dispense a wacky wisdom in a deadpan, paradoxical style of which Oscar Wilde would have approved. But even as we laugh, we are also being led into a world of lost, unhappy loners. Using a fantastic range of voices, gestures and movements, Tomlin conjures up the cast of characters who populate Trudy's head, with all the apparent ease of a magician pulling a whole menagerie of animals from a single hat. Somehow, she manages to highlight the bits of information that don't yet seem significant but will click silently into place in another scene. The real drama thus happens in our own minds, as we gradually discover the connections between the society lady and the whore, between the enraged teenager in Indianapolis and the disillusioned New Ager in California, between them both and the aging jock in a health club in L.A. What begins to emerge is the complete opposite of the tunnel vision that you usually get from one-actor shows. "The Search" is nothing less than an American epic. Tomlin's physical mobility and Klara Zieglerova's beautiful abstract sets also avoid the cavernous feeling that you sometimes get with a single actor on a Broadway stage. Ultimately, Tomlin and Wagner not only connect all the characters they have created, but make the most important theatrical connection, that between the actor and the audience. This "search" deserves to go on and on.
Lily Tomlin. Even the name sounds like an incantation, and the woman herself is the joyous high priestess of angst, who brings neurasthenia close to being a religion, and turns neuroses into a way of life.
She is both fantastically funny and subversively disturbing. And when I say "she," I really mean "they," for she is joined in her assault on our sane and good senses by Jane Wagner, the writer and director of Tomlin's one-woman, multicharacter play, "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe."
"The Search" opened at the Booth Theatre last night in a belated return engagement, for Tomlin and Wagner brought it to Broadway first in 1985. It is said to have been updated a little, and doubtless it has, but I cannot see where.
It is now a satiric period piece cheerfully celebrating the '70s and the early '80s. But it hasn't become dated; it's merely aged, acquiring a becoming and telling patina in the process.
The first part of the play is really a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes, mostly centered around a pleasantly nutty homeless woman, Trudy, who has an ongoing relationship with extraterrestrials.
To these outer-spaced aliens, the spaced-out Trudy is trying to teach such niceties of human behavior as recognizing the difference between Andy Warhol's art and Campbell's soup. There is always a method in Trudy's madness.
As the evening progresses, we meet other denizens of the Tomlin/Wagner jungle, such as Kate, a bored lady bored by being bored and a victim of hairdressing, and Agnus, a rebellious teenager who has more zippers than a centipede has feet.
It is clever and witty and a little bit too smart-alecky for its own good. Yet, after the intermission comes a sea-change.
The elements in this revue-like parade suddenly start to come together as a real play. There are a couple of philosophical whores, Brandy and Tina, and best of all, there is Lyn.
Lyn is a California feminist with a tofu-chewing husband bent on self-improvement, a high-powered job, hyperactive twins bent on self-destruction and a geodesic house she and her husband have built from a kit.
But her marriage is breaking up, and so is she. Her friends are a disaster, and life is far from the glowing image she once envisaged.
Now, slowly but surely, Wagner and Tomlin bring the whole piece home, jokily tying up a few loose ends, and leaving a few more to the imagination - Kate finds a lost suicide note. Did it belong to Lyn? We'll never know.
But what we do know is that by the end of the evening, Wagner, Tomlin, Trudy and all the rest have brought us to some kind of epiphany, hilarious, yet immeasurably touching.
Tomlin is a clown of clowns. Her body moves like a dancer's, her face is as expressive as a mime's, and she controls the stage with a mix of self-deprecating charisma and ironic pain.
Last time out on Broadway, she won a Tony for this same performance, which has, if anything, deepened with time and grown with history.
But also note the production values of what appears to be a very simple show - Klara Zieglerova's effectively Spartan set, Ken Billington's eloquent lighting and, most of all, the wondrously synchronized sound effects provided by Tom Clark and Mark Bennett.
You may go to the Booth just to see a beloved star strut her stuff, but you leave having been part of a splendid evening of pure theater, intelligent life and universal magic.
''In the future, we will still be using the phrase 'History repeats itself.' '' It's a funny enough quip, characteristic of the playwright Jane Wagner and the free-standing observations of the ironies and paradoxes of life on earth that pepper her play ''The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.''
The line is placed in the mouth of Trudy, the shrewdly nutty bag lady (and ''creative consultant'' to aliens she refers to as ''my space chums'') who is more or less the show's narrator, and in the mouth, of course, of Lily Tomlin, who plays Trudy and every other character -- including herself -- in this one-woman tour de force. But it is the collective aphorisms of the menagerie that serve to represent Ms. Wagner's appealingly crusty view of the world.
''I worry that humanity has been 'advanced' to its present level of incompetency because evolution works on the Peter Principle.''
''One thing I have no worry about is whether God exists. But it has occurred to me that God has Alzheimer's and has forgotten we exist.''
Wait. Haven't we heard this before? Well, yes, of course. This is a revival, after all. Still, even with its crowd-pleasing star in fine, welcoming form, ''The Search for Signs,'' enormously popular in its first go-round in 1985, gives off an unmistakable whiff of deja vu. The history that is repeating itself on Broadway at the Booth Theater, where the show opened last night with its once-trenchant social commentary virtually unchanged, feels a bit too much like, well, history.
Let's not be too harsh. Many of Ms. Wagner's witticisms retain their vitality: ''Did you know, in the entire universe, we are the only intelligent life forms thought to have a Miss Universe contest?'' And the narrative shape of the show, which is outwardly fragmented by the tales of the various personae, is held deftly together with subtle (and often amusing) cross-references.
More important, the characters themselves -- including Chrissy, the feckless young woman who can't hold a job, whom we meet at a gym trying to keep up appearances; Agnus Angst, the teenage punk performance artist; Kate, the affluent socialite with an irksomely trendy haircut; the humane prostitutes, Brandy and Tina; and Lyn, whose coming-of-age-in-the-feminist-era story commandeers most of the second act -- are vivid and shrewdly observed.
Fifteen years ago they were variations on types that would become stereotypes (though truth be told, Trudy has always been a bit of a cutesy, wise-fool cliche); but even now the details of their lives, the idiosyncrasies of their speech, persuade us that they are still with us, still out there struggling to make art of soup, to appropriate the Andy Warhol reference that is one of Ms. Wagner's most prominent metaphors. However, their familiarity undercuts their power.
''All my life I've always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific'': that's Chrissy. ''I am sick of being the victim of trends I reflect but don't even understand'': that's Kate.
These are good lines, revealing lines, even realistic ones; you know people who might say them. But don't they ring a bit, well, stale? As if whoever said them would have heard them somewhere? Doesn't the humor remind you of a laugh before it makes you laugh?
Much of ''The Search for Signs'' has this elusive, echoey quality, which now and then becomes concrete. At one point, Lyn, exhausted from child rearing, accommodating her preoccupied former-hippie husband and working at a public relations firm, complains in a one-liner: ''It's hard to be politically conscious and upwardly mobile at the same time.'' The humor of the line, so dependent on buzz phrases from another era, is pure nostalgia. It's hard to imagine anyone under, say, 30 perceiving it as anything other than a pithy, literal remark.
Indeed, the particular story of Lyn and her friends, Edie and Marge, is on ground that seems to have evanesced underneath it. Certain elements remain timely -- Lyn's disillusioned romanticism, Marge's personal misfortunes and depression -- because they reflect perennial issues. But set against the backdrop of the 1970's and early 80's, with the characters growing to maturity in direct parallel with the feminist movement, the story no longer has the crisp and bittersweet quality of a societal mirror.
Quite aside from the references to macrame, sensitivity training and geodesic domes, isn't it well accepted by now that the opportunity for women to ''have it all'' wasn't a panacea for them, nor for relations between the sexes, nor for the family, nor for the economy? The story made me merely impatient, but -- forgive the chauvinism -- if I were a young woman I think I might feel cheated by a show that purported to tell a contemporary female story but stopped before I could recognize my world in it.
No such reservations apply to Ms. Tomlin, however, who, at 61, lays claim to far more youthful zing than her material. The show, with its range of characters and virtual lack of costumes or props (the lighting, by Ken Billington, is a more palpable presence than any set) is a hugely demanding one, verbally and physically. Each character has her distinctions that require the careful attention of an inner choreographer. (Or his: Ms. Tomlin's mimicry of a man lifting weights is textbook bicep work, down to the breathing.)
Ms. Tomlin has a remarkable command of individual parts: her fluttery hands, for instance, as she fluffs and brushes Chrissy's hair, or her elastic mouth, as she delivers Trudy's evidentiary reports to her space chums with a moue relocated to the side of her face. And in loose-fitting black attire, Ms. Tomlin accomplishes her protean changes at a coltish gallop. The shifts from Trudy's shuffle -- she keeps her pantyhose rolled down to her ankles -- to Agnus's full body rage to Kate's brisk boredom is sometimes so rapid that it's evident there was more to memorize here than the script.
Perhaps more impressive are the natural glee with which she embraces her performer's task and her fondness for the audience that allows her to be gleeful. There is text in Ms. Wagner's play to support these qualities: ''The play was soup, the audience art'' is the conclusion drawn by Trudy's space chums, not to mention the playwright. But if Ms. Tomlin were merely meeting the script requirements, the evening would be considerably less buoyant than it is. And that's something it doesn't require a long memory to appreciate.