In the first, hyperactive half of Lily Tomlin's new solo show at the Plymouth, "The Search for Signs of Itelligent Life in the Universe," the many characters introduced by the comedienne seem to tumble over one another and blur. Things settle down in the second half, however, with a couple well-drawn sketches.
But despite all the brilliance on display as the star, dressed in blouse and slacks, leaps and shimmies about the stage with unflagging vigor, the evening is far too long and eventually wearing.
Jane Wagner, who's been responsible for a good part of Tomlin's material for many years now, has both written and directed the new work. There are so many comic twists and turns that the star could be congratulated just for memorizing it.
There is a thread. Tomlin's bag lady, called Trudy here, is visited by some small, gelatinous people from outer space come to study our mores. What they learn, mainly is the troubled state of our society from several character vignettes.
The cast of characters include: Agnus, a disgruntled teenager who worries about worrying; a garrulous wonam in a beauty salon whose hair has been lopsidely trimmed; a women explaining the secret of her sexual gratification on a public access channel; a captive of an L.A. health club; and quite a few others.
In Wagner's often scintillating but only half-formed script, we meet a housewife who sends her two nerve-wracking children out to sit in the car during a rainstorm to play "car wash." And we listen to such observation as: "Some people know that in developing a creative block they are doing the world a favor"; and the suspicion that we "developed a language becuase of our need to complain."
But the fevered script, chock-full of hip psychology and trendy phases, is at its most rewarding - as is Tomlin - in the two second-half sketches. In one, the housewife with the two kids finds out that her husband has been unfaithful, and one of her woman friends hangs herself, though in a way meant to be comic. In the second, a pair of prostitutes hitch a ride with a writer who wants to tape their stories. The streetwalkers, Brandy and Tina, are funny and, in their nutty way, more endearing than the rest of Tomlin's creatures.
Tomlin is more a mimic than a character actress, and she is at ease firing off Wagner's witty words. She is also, as usual, triumphantly cool. But Wagner has not made this journey through the spaces of the mind as easy or sufficiently coherent one. And Tomlin should learn when to get off.
Lily Tomlin, Lily Tomlin. Conceivably the four most fascinating names in the Broadway theater today. I would write them a poem if I could only find somlin to rhyme with Tomlin.
In any event - and it is some event - Miss Tomlin, all of them, last night careened into the Plymouth Theater not quite out of control and certainly in command.
She looks like a pixie in a jump-suit with arc-lights, and she has the archetypal brash nervousness of a 20th case of terminal jitters. She raises neurosis to the level of art, and fear into a form of culture.
Her enchanted face is landscape of anxiety, her body tensed for nerves.
Yet when she moves she has the deftness of a long-distance dancer, her smile lights up the Century feminist faced with rush-hour at Zabar's.
Miss Tomlin's monologue/play (her aria/opera, her material, her whatever) is called The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. It is written by Jane Wagner - who is every bit as searching, signal, intelligent, lively, and universal as Miss Tomlin, and richly deserves her equal billing.
Miss Tomlin is the incredible expanding woman, and Jane Wagner's thing-cycle is precisely the thing for her to expand into and fill with fun, humanity, and a daunting cleverness...that sometimes overreaches us, and sometimes perhaps even overreaches itself.
The intellecual fireworks are occasionally frightening to more placid minds such as my own, yet they are frequently illuminating, particularly when they stay close to the ground.
It was in 1977 that Miss Tomlin and Miss Wagner presented their earlier two-woman solo show on Broadway, Appearing Nitely.
I could almost wish that I had not praised that so much, so I could have saved even more praise for this. Because this really is in a different league.
For one thing it genuinely is a comedy, about the way we are, and for another it has acquired the conviction of its own pretensions, and is prepared to risk ridicule from people unhappy about its confident mixture of epic seriousness and niteclub corn.
Their earlier, and also heartsplittingly hillarious, show regaled us with a series of vignette skits of Tomlin familiars.
These and other Tomlinizations created before her Wagnerian partership, like Ernestine the telephonist and "the party to whom she was speaking," have gone. However Tess, the bag lady, has a vestigial new life in Trudy, another bag lady - and the key character in Intelligent Life.
There are, of course, still sketches in the show, Miss Tomlin, remains her own unique mixture of diseuse - a sort of social diseuse as it were - and stand-up, fall-down comedian.
Yet this time around all the sketches have been blended, tied-together (sometimes with a clumsy obviousness but always with determination), and made part of a story-continuum - yes, you might almost say, play.
Trudy is a deranged, onetime copywriter, who has handed over her slick brains for quick insight, talks funny, walks funnier (her fashion of wearing her pantyhose round her ankles helps here), and is in touch with inquisitive aliens from outer space on a fact-finding mission about our little world.
The characters in Wagner's soap opera like Agnus Angst, the dispossessed punk-rocker from Indianapolis; Kate, a lady so bored that she probably sleeps in her dreams; Brandy and Tina, a couple of hooked-up hookers; or Lynn, the hemmed-in liberationist - intersect at various points, as Miss Tomlin and Miss Wagner try to distinguish between soup and art, life and artifice, rathole and Warhol.
The humor is mad and antic. Puns abound, and nothing is too low for a laugh. I bet you never expected to hear the "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" routine given another workout.
Yet throughout this madcap (there's a word and a half!) excursion into cartoon and caricature there is an energizing surge of brilliant wit, and of thought-provoking thought.
The protean Miss Tomlin goes on and on (although one hates to deny too much of a good thing, she probably goes on and on too long), but her performance never for a second flags.
The show has been staged by Miss Wagner herself, but special plaudits are due the technical crew of Neil Peter Jampolis for the lighting, Otts Munderloh for the "sound design" - yes, this is wonderful, watch it! - and Janet Beroza, the production stage manager.
Intelligent Life runs as smoothly and as unexpectedly as Miss Tomlin herself - and that is indeed smooth and unexpected. And adorable.
And at the end, with a truimphant Miss Tomlin literally standing on her head in response to the ovation (remember, the opera isn't over untill the skinny lady stands on her head), I personally felt as though what was left of my mind had been blown.
Emerging into the tinsel reality of 45th Street, I soon found my bearings, and started to wonder whether this was a slight case of sleight of mind, and whether the Misses Tomlin and Wagner were as coruscating as they seemed to be at the time I was being coruscated.
Happily, I decided that they were. Don't on pain of exile miss this one-woman extravaganza of life. She is the world's funniest woman. Miss Tomlin should be given Manhattan. And as for Miss Wagner, she should be given the Met!
In ''Nashville,'' the Robert Altman film that marked her graduation from television-sketch comedienne to actress, Lily Tomlin was just one of many vivid characters in a throbbing panorama of contemporary American life. To say that this artist has continued to grow in the decade since then is to abridge the story drastically. In Act II of ''The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,'' her new show at the Plymouth, we find that Miss Tomlin and her longtime collaborator, the writer and director Jane Wagner, are attempting what might well be considered their own theatrical update to Mr. Altman's epic. They treat the audience to an idiosyncratic, rude, blood-stained comedy about American democracy and its discontents - and, this time around, Miss Tomlin plays all the parts herself.
The results are something to see. While Miss Tomlin's chameleon-like ability to inhabit a wide range of personalities is not news to those who saw her previous Broadway recital, the 1977 ''Appearing Nitely,'' this time she knits her creations (almost all of them new) into what can rightly be called a play. What's more, the script is nearly as daring as Miss Tomlin's single-handed assault on it. As the star trails like a comet through a galaxy of characters - with no props, costume changes or scenery for artificial propulsion - so Miss Wagner attempts to sum up a generation of social history in a tightly compressed saga of a few representative lives. Even the occasional blurring of Miss Tomlin's characterizations and the fitful melodramatics of Miss Wagner's writing can't diminish the fact that Act II of ''The Search for Signs'' is original, not to mention absorbing, theater.
This post-intermission segment, which follows a relatively benign Act I assortment of vignettes, is also the most genuinely subversive comedy to be produced on Broadway in years. It's a radical critique not only of the national status quo but also of some activists who have fought (ineffectually, in the author's view) for change. In telling the story of a California feminist named Lynn over a period that begins with the birth of Ms. magazine and ends with Geraldine Ferraro's ascension to the Democratic ticket, Miss Tomlin and Miss Wagner make equal sport of men and women (hetero- and homosexual), liberals and reactionaries, rebellious multi-media peformance artists and middle-management corporate pawns. True, the bourgeois fashions of west Los Angeles and Marin County get hit particularly hard: Lynn and her husband live in a geodesic dome (built from a kit advertised in Mother Jones magazine) and enlist in every est-inspired training program going. But only the self-deceiving will fail to recognize Miss Wagner's play as an indictment of everyone who has spent the last decade either standing still or attempting ''to be politically conscious and upwardly mobile at the same time.''
For all the anger that underlies the piece, it is more seductive than abrasive in the watching. Miss Tomlin makes us care about the well-meaning Lynn, who discovers too late that it is impossible to ''change the system'' and be a ''total woman'' (replete with children, money, power, cosmic consciousness) while constantly doing all the cooking and produce shopping required to maintain a gourmet health-food kitchen. We also grow to like Lynn's best friends - Edie, a radical lesbian journalist whose newspaper is purchased by Rupert Murdoch, and Marge, who eventually discovers a most macabre outlet for her skill at macrame. Even Lynn's hypocritical husband, Bob, isn't a total loss. Like the title of Edie's forthcoming book, ''What's Left of the Left,'' the slogan on his favorite T-shirt - ''Whales save us'' - could well be the plaintive epitaph for an age.
Miss Tomlin shifts among the female personae so fast - with alterations of voice, posture and facial muscles - that Lynn's tale almost takes on the hallucinatory flow of consciousness as it spills about the black stage. Miss Wagner's lines rarely miss a witty trick, whether they're describing Lynn's preferred marijuana (''paraquat-free Panama Red'') or the products sold by Bob's raised-consciousness catalogue business (''New Age chatchkes''). Some of the dialogue has a shapeliness that circumscribes character while making us laugh: ''If I had known what it would be like to have it all,'' says a beleaguered Lynn, ''I might have settled for less.''
Lynn's Act II drama aside, ''The Search for Signs'' sometimes does settle for less. Although Miss Tomlin's energy never flags, Miss Wagner's writing is variable. Some of the show's many other characters go on too long. In Act I, the laughs and insights are outnumbered by preachy pronouncements (''God has Alzheimer's disease and forgot that we exist'') and maudlin sketches (an alienated teen-age punk rocker turns to her grandparents for solace). The woman who serves as the evening's unofficial narrator - Trudy, a nutty Manhattan bag lady who is conducting the metaphysical search of the title - is a treacly Ken Kesey-era cliche, stuffed with cute, curmudgeonly aphorisms that reek of Humanity and idiot-savant wisdom. Miss Tomlin, whose eyes squint into shifty half-moons when playing Trudy, is a little cloying in the role, too.
Much more convincing are such characters as Chrissy, a health-club devotee in doomed search of self-esteem and good-looking men (''If it weren't for false hopes, the economy would just collapse,'' she concludes); Brandy and Tina, a pair of prostitutes (one white, one black) living ''the life'' at 49th and Broadway, and, most hilariously, Kate, a trendy, jaded socialite who is bored by everything from ''uplifting theater'' to slick magazine articles about boredom. What Miss Tomlin and Miss Wagner don't do to differentiate among these and the others, their inventive lighting designer, Neil Peter Jampolis, does: The punk rocker is embalmed with the sallow fluorescent light of an all-night fast-food joint, while the drugged-out streetwalker is aglow with the reflected glare of Times Square's own nocturnal spectrum.
At the end of the show, after Lynn's story has been told, almost all the characters converge on stage at once, brought together by Miss Tomlin's masterful acting and a series of rapid-fire Dickensian coincidences. As they do, the tone turns abruptly sentimental. No longer are we being told that life is meaningless, that the contents of Middle American homes are ''garbage,'' that G. Gordon Liddy's ''Will'' is the self-help bible of our time or that ''evolution works on the Peter Principle.'' Instead, Trudy the bag lady offers comforting talk about life's awesome ''mysteries'' - among them ''the goose-bump experience'' of attending a play at which ''a group of strangers sitting together in the dark are laughing and crying about the same thing.''
Perhaps these final-curtain declarations of optimism are what the other characters - and their heretofore tough-minded creators - might cynically dismiss as ''false hopes'' or, worse, ''uplifting theater.'' But by then, Miss Tomlin has drawn her audience completely into the goose-bump experience, and who can stop tingling long enough to resist?