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No Place to Go

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

No Place to Go
Ethan Lipton
Photo by Joan Marcus

Emblazoned on the cover of the program for No Place to Go, the new concert-musical playing at Joe's Pub through April 8, are the words "This is for the 100%." If that statement carries with it the implication of incendiary activism along the lines of Occupy Wall Street, Ethan Lipton's show never lets on. Rather than dwelling on platitudes and catch phrases about class warfare, it's too busy living up to the letter of that line, finding in the all-too-common experience of losing your job or, depending on how you see things, abandoning it feelings of emptiness, confusion, and betrayal that anyone can understand. Especially these days.

Lipton, who's also the chief performer in this 90-minute evening, has no trouble wearing the Everyman mantle himself. Looking like a cheerier Harvey Keitel and deploying a droning baritone tinged with both the weight of the world and the lightness of life, Lipton is an odd but endearing onstage presence. Standing with straight shoulders but a sunken chest, as if to project confidence he doesn't actually believe in, Lipton proves himself an appropriate guide to the story he's telling of man whose company is moving and who wants him and his fellow employees to go along with it. To Mars.

The good news is that he and everyone else is given plenty of advance notice, so those who decide to go the company's sweetening the pot by paying all moving expenses have time to get their affairs in order. And those who don't, well, they have time to look for something else. And Lipton, of course, has plenty of time to muse on the pros and cons of both choices, something that wouldn't be easy even if the economy weren't down.

A decade-long part-timer in a position that's rapidly falling out of favor in the publishing industry (he's working as an "information refiner" a curious cross between a copy writer and a copy editor), Lipton also has a family to support and a burgeoning career as a playwright and songwriter that won't be easy to conduct on the Red Planet. He's also burdened with one even more debilitating problem: He loves his work. "My job and I fill a need for each other, and it's nice, the way we do it," he explains. "We do it with compassion, dignity, good humor, and respect. There are times when I come through for my job in a pinch and times when my job saves me from myself." How much he needs or wants to continue to be saved by it is the prevailing question.

It's one that's asked and advanced smartly through Lipton's speeches, which play as the type of collegiate and conversational rundown you might get while sitting with a friend in a bar. It's clear that Lipton and his director, Leigh Silverman (Well, this season's earlier Chinglish), wanted to address a facet of the nation's un- and underemployment situation that you seldom see, and they cover both sides of the issue with mirth and melancholy that make the underlying situation however fantastic it may actually be thoroughly believable and relatable.

So it hardly seems a coincidence that Lipton keeps referring to where he lives as "our town," and his method of providing local color about the people and events that characterize it ("We have a billionaire in our town, a media mogul, and this guy was so stressed out about making ends meet...that he took a second job as the mayor of our city") frequently recalls Thornton Wilder's classic play of just that title. In his demeanor and slightly quirky outlook, Lipton even suggests that work's central Stage Manager as well, and crisply succeeds at playing a homey guide through the commonplace events of his life, and that of so many others.

The score, unfortunately, does not carry equal weight. It's generally attractive, awash in jazzy blues that solidifies into (slightly) harder pop as emotions and circumstances warrant. But whereas Lipton's innate niceness is sufficient for soft-selling his character in dialogue, it doesn't translate comfortably to the songs he sings. Except for "Shitstorm," in which he ponders ways he can ride out (or rather ignore) the despair that's spreading through the office, and a raging curtain call finale about the behavior of the "zombie banks" in the 2008 financial crisis, the songs are loping, stream-of-consciousness riffs that lack emphasis and interrupt the action more often than they illuminate it.

This is not to say that there's not room for numbers about him moving back in with his "Aging Middle Class Parents," or praising WPA mastermind Harry Hopkins, or eulogizing a "mighty mensch" with whom he worked, and he and his warmly thumping three-piece band (saxophone, guitar, and bass) performs these and others with the requisite gusto. But they lack the unique, approachable voice of the scenes, and tend to peter out rather than conclude with energetic, dramatic flourishes qualities that brand them as more pop than theatre compositions. As such, even as they're used ornamentally, they don't stick with you.

No Place to Go as a whole does, however, given the originality and immediacy Lipton summons when speaking: You can't shake his image or sound as a man displaced by the mere possibility of losing the thing he's allowed to give his life so much meaning. His ultimate decision, which won't be revealed here, is almost unnecessary he's already let too many other people make his choices for him. He is, then, someone who's an inextricable runner in the human race but flailing as he figures out what that means. He's articulated his struggle effectively enough to convince you that, whatever your and his income level, the two of you are indeed part of the same 100 percent, searching for the same things and, too often, finding the same dead ends.


No Place to Go
Through April 8
Joe's Pub, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.publictheater.org