by Jon Santiago
Overheard during the intermission of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Jane Wagner's one-person show that debuted in 1985.
"It's dated. But not dated."
"It's definitely a period piece."
"There is that one line 'He's got the manners of a terrorist.' That used to get huge laughs. Since 9/11—"
I can't quite bring myself to think of Intelligent Life as a period piece, but I can appreciate that in some particulars — mostly the references to then-contemporary New-Agey fads — the play might require Cliff's Notes for the Gen-X kids.
Of course, nutty bag ladies remain among us. Space aliens never go out of favor in the popular imagination. Wayward husbands, disillusioned suburbanites, loving grandparents and rebellious teens will always be with us. To say nothing of the wise streetwalkers who see themselves purveying psychological counseling along with their other services. The world's oldest profession was summed up this way: "People just want somebody to listen."
Yes, Intelligent Life may be a bit long in the tooth, but Jane Wagner's script and Joy Vandervort-Cobb's spot-on performance never let us forget that language can be a beautiful, compelling thing. The finest invention of humankind.
And I love how the invention of language is described in the play.
Primitive man walks along, stubs his toe.
"Ouch!" he says. And immediately begins wondering what he meant by that.
We've been asking ourselves and each other what we mean by everything we say ever since.
Intelligent Life and Vandervort-Cobb's Trudy the bag lady are remarkable for all the things they contrive to fit in the same sentence. Ideas collide like planets spinning out of control. The debris falls. We ask,"What was that?" We laugh.
There's still time to catch this brilliant performance. To be clear: Don't miss it. You'll know exactly what I mean.