One of the best jokes in playwright Jane Wagner's one-woman show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe is found in its title. The question is, just how intelligent is life on earth? Now in an exuberant production at the Avenue Theatre, Wagner's play asks more questions than it answers. But her vision of American culture--as seen by extraterrestrials through the mediating spirit of a mad old bag lady--is exquisitely funny, touching and oddly wise.

Pamela Clifton plays fifteen personalities, moving easily between the stories and the characters with instantaneous changes in body language, facial expression and tone of voice. As Trudy the bag lady, she hobbles on stage and explains that she has put reality on the back burner. But since she suspects that what is called "reality" is nothing more than a collective hunch, she may in fact have discovered something truer.

Having once been institutionalized, Trudy received electroshock treatments, which have turned her brain into a kind of television transmitter for the extraterrestrials. Without trying, Trudy suddenly picks up on the lives of people all around her. The aging dame tunes in on fourteen people ranging in age, race, gender and socioeconomic status.

The characters are related to each other by cosmic coincidence. A socialite picks up a suicide note by a dopey woman we've all met at aerobics class. A couple of prostitutes talk to a newspaper reporter about the street, leaning out of the car at one point to give Trudy some money for fried clams and a malted. An aikido instructor donates sperm to a lesbian couple who are friends of a drunk named Marge who in turn touches the life of a married feminist with a geodesic dome house and a philandering husband--who leaves her for an aikido instructor. It all gets very complex, but these coincidences remind us, too, that our lives touch each other, that we are all related to each other.

Without sinking into sentimentality, playwright Wagner manages to hint at vast caverns of suffering within the human soul: the betrayals of love, the personal failures, false hopes and disappointments, the overwhelming discomfort of human interaction, the neglect of children, the ongoing war between the sexes.

But she also mocks human pretensions. Trudy repeatedly tries to explain the difference between soup and art to the aliens by comparing an Andy Warhol image of a Campbell's soup can to the real thing. "This is soup, this is art. No, this is soup, this is art." They don't get it until she takes them to see a play, and they spend most of the time watching the audience because she forgot to tell them to watch the stage. They are amazed to see a group of people experiencing the same emotions at the same time, laughing and crying in synch. "Trudy," they tell her, "the play is the soup, the audience is the art."

Wagner can make fun of feminists without disparaging feminism. She mocks the self-involvement of a teenager, implicating the parental neglect that produced the angry young woman. She indicts the society that victimizes the mentally ill, while at the same time questioning the whole concept of insanity: Trudy may not have had a breakdown so much as a breakthrough.

As ridiculous, pitiable and egocentric as most of them are, each of the characters has a full-blown humanity, though we know comparatively little about them. That is partly because the play is so well written, but it is also because Clifton was born for the role and because director Jeremy Cole is particularly adept at creating striking imagery from peculiar behavior--even on a gray stage with no props.

Cole and Clifton's comic timing is nearly unerring. If Lily Tomlin (who made the play famous on Broadway and later on TV) seems to sneak into the performance now and then, the reference feels like an homage. But make no mistake: This is Clifton's show. Tomlin's approach was all shtick; you watched Tomlin being clever. Clifton, however, gets further into the characters: You know more about each of them than you do about the actress. So, in the end, her Universe is far more serious--and seriously funny.


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