The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe
Review by Marianne Dowling
Whether she’s screaming out the angst-filled poetry of a 15-year old punk, stumbling around as a middle-aged drunk, or bragging about high sperm count as a disco-obsessed body builder, Laurie Murphy is consistently fascinating in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.
Written by Jane Wagner, the one woman play spans over ten years and features a dozen characters, a challenge for any actor. Over the course of two hours, not only does Murphy play the parts of young and old, rich and poor, and male and female, she sometimes carries a dialogue between characters in the same scene.
Although it often looked like Murphy had a very bad case of multiple personality disorder—especially when the characters were arguing—it is never confusing. The switches back and forth between the bag lady and the prostitutes, or the grandmother to the grandfather were done with ease. The accents, gestures, and postures of each one are consistent right down to the slightest nuance.
Aside from the character juggling and the physical toll this takes on its star (within the first fifteen minutes, Murphy was sweating while playing a character taking an exercise class), it’s the everyday ramblings of the everyday characters that really catch the audience’s attention. Hopefully, it also makes them wonder about themselves. It is, after all, a play about searching for intelligent life, so without at least some introspection on the part of the audience, the play loses a lot of its meaning.
The plot is an unusual one to say the least. A bag lady named Trudy is visited by aliens who want to know more about Earthlings. The way they accomplish this is by latching on to her mind while she channels a wide variety of people for study.
Even though the characters are of different social and economic backgrounds, different ages, and express vastly different opinions—they actually have more in common than first meets the eye and ear.
Like all of us Earthlings, they have hopes and dreams, ambitions, fears, worries, questions, hang-ups, and regrets. Some characters are cheaters, drug users, and others are insecure, spoiled and angry. But whether they are sympathetic or despicable, loveable or aggravating—they are only human trying to find happiness and make their way in the world.
Aside from this, the lives of many of the characters are intertwined in unusual and unexpected ways—adding to the theme of connection. One of the most memorable parts of the script comes near the end of the play, when Trudy tells the audience that what she’s discovered through her work with the extra-terrestrials is that “everything is a part of everything.” People share the same atoms, and breathe the same air. The play stresses that there is a “cosmic crazy glue” keeping even the most incompatible, mismatched people together whether they like it or not.
All in all, an uplifting play filled with thought-provoking dialogue and laughter. This shouldn’t come as a surprise though. We humans are a funny species.