Road Worriers

Such a transformation wouldn't faze Lily Tomlin, who has revived her 1985 solo show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, to as much admiration as laughter. Though Tomlin avers at the start that she worries about everything, it's hard to believe, watching her turn herself, pitch perfect, into one after another of these dozen tenuously related characters. You get the feeling that, given a workable page or two of script, there's nothing she couldn't turn herself into, from an ironing board to Immanuel Kant. It's unfair to critics, who love drawing similitudes; the hard part, after watching Tomlin at work, is to think of someone she doesn't resemble. Every now and then Jane Wagner's script hits a faded patch, when its age reveals its cautious way of kidding little targets (like the having-it-all feminist wife) while dodging the big questions behind them, but this never hampers the intensity of Tomlin's presence, or the authoritative clarity of her immersion in each role.

Christian Camargo and Keith David in Kit Marlowe: a spy in the ointment
photo: Michal Daniel
Christian Camargo and Keith David in Kit Marlowe: a spy in the ointment


Kit Marlowe
By David Grimm
Joseph Papp Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street

Down the Garden Paths
By Anne Meara
Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe
By Jane Wagner
Booth Theatre
Broadway and 45th Street

Book of the Dead (Second Avenue)
By John Moran
Joseph Papp Public Theater

In its way, Tomlin's salute to human complexity and hopelessness—as explained to researchers from outer space by a homeless bag lady—constitutes the contemporary Book of the Dead that John Moran's hour-long media display at the Public Theatre aspires to be. Moran's piece, in triptych form, is a cosmic pun: Both the funerary papyri left in ancient Egyptian tombs, containing charms for use in the afterlife, and the basic scripture of Tibetan Buddhist monks are known as "the book of the dead." Accordingly, Moran's piece opens with an excursus on ancient Egyptian religion, and closes with a slightly more elaborate explanation of Buddhist belief in the circular trap of reincarnation and how to escape it. The middle and longest section features life on Earth (a/k/a Downtown) as it's lived today: a few insignificant moments viewed close-up, with their intersecting elements seen first as single units, then layered on each other; lengthy gaps between them are filled with full-stage projections of parody TV commercials.

This isn't stupid, except for the commercials, and within the limits of Moran's maddeningly restrictive method, it's skillfully done. Its two problems are, first, that the overall effect is pathetically desultory, and, second, that Moran's tactics, like his material, are hopelessly familiar. No doubt a Zen monk would find it overpoweringly meaningful; for those unused to meditation, sitting in a theater enduring a brief hour's barrage of projections, taped voices, and mechanically scurrying humans produces no revelation. (In this context, the mock commercials—easy targets easily dismissed—are a particular waste of resources.) The minute scraps of reality Moran stages are also hardly worth digging through when so many multimedia and performance artists, most notably Meredith Monk, have been there before him. Moran's latter-day insistence on having everything electronified looks pallid and robotic next to Monk, whose most elaborate structures are always built on organically human sounds and gestures. With her work, no matter how outré, you get a living experience; with Book of the Dead, you only come away thinking how much that hour must have cost somebody.

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