Arts & Culture

Funny, insightful 'Search' comes to San Luis Obispo

Suzy Newman reaches out in "The Searching for Intelligent Life in the Universe," now playing at San Luis Obispo Little Theatre.
Suzy Newman reaches out in "The Searching for Intelligent Life in the Universe," now playing at San Luis Obispo Little Theatre.

If you ask Trudy the bag lady, reality is overrated.

“Frankly, going crazy was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she confides in “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.” “What is reality but a collective hunch?”

Jane Wagner's witty one-woman show, now playing at San Luis Obispo Little Theatre, tackles sanity, sex, relationships and other subjects through a distinctly 20th-century lens.

“The Search for Signs,” which premiered in 1985, originally starred Wagner's long-time collaborator and now-wife, Lily Tomlin, who won a Tony Award for best actress for the role. (The play was adapted for the big screen in the 1991 film of the same title.)

Suzy Newman takes over the reins in this bare-bones production, part of San Luis Obispo Little Theatre's After Hours series. Director Kevin Harris handled lighting, sound and video design.

Clad in a simple black T-shirt and slacks, Newman plays multiple characters — mostly women, with a couple men — in a string of interconnected stories. They range from a suburban housewife who happily shills vibrators on public access television to a randy gym rat who becomes an accidental sperm donor.

Chief among them is raspy-voiced Trudy, who first appears on stage pushing an imaginary shopping cart and slurping on an invisible soda. As humankind's only link with extraterrestrial life, she's helping her “space chums” in their title treasure hunt — a difficult task when “Earth,” as she acknowledges, “is a planet still in its infancy.”

Trudy goes into regular trances, accompanied by flashes of light and loud electronic buzzing, that offer her glimpses into the lives of others.

In the course of the show, the audience encounters people like Chrissy, the incompetent office girl and fitness freak. “All my life I wanted to be somebody. Now I see I should have been more specific,” Chrissy muses in her Valley Girl voice as she sweats her way through an aerobics class.

Another memorable character is Agnus, an angst-ridden teenage punk and performance artist with “hair the color of Froot Loops.” We even meet Agnus's befuddled grandparents, retirees Lud and Marie.

The second half of “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” is mostly dedicated to the lives of everywoman Lyn and her friends, Edie, the frank-spoken lesbian and Marge, the sexy plant shop owner.

Over the decades, we watch Lyn go from an idealistic activist to a frazzled career woman struggling to juggle work, motherhood and marriage to Bob, a “New Age Ward Cleaver” whose chief contributions to the relationship appear to be a geodesic dome home and leaky immersion tank.

“If I had known what it was like to have it all, I would have settled for less,” Lyn grouses.

“The Search for Signs” demands a lot from an actress. One must be a superb mimic, a talented mime and, above all, a fearlessly physical performer capable of leaping, lunging and, yes, scratching her crotch in front of audience members.

Newman proves up to the challenge, leaping from one character to another with energetic aplomb. When the play occasionally drags, it's generally the fault of material that, although insightful, is a bit outdated. 

San Luis Obispo Little Theatre’s production is sparely staged; the set consists of a table, a chair and two sets of short stairs.

Fortunately, Trudy and her pals don’t need much to make a memorable impression. 

“The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe”

9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday 

San Luis Obispo Little Theatre, 888 Morro St., San Luis Obispo

$20

786-2440 or www.slolittletheatre.org

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