Once upon a time, the Great Recession decimated the job market, and consolidations, shutdowns, and takeovers brought darkness to the country. This is Ethan Lipton’s framing No place to go, a light and whimsical cabaret piece that has evolved from its New York premiere a decade ago into a full production directed by Matthew Gardiner at the Signature Theatre.
In this solid take on Lipton’s lovably surreal but underpowered script, Lipton’s alter-ego protagonist George is an “information refiner” for a New York company that’s about to move — to Mars. He is a “permanent part-timer” at the company and, although he lacks benefits, the gig has long supported him and his wife, Martha, as they pursue their artistic passions. Should they follow his paycheck to Mars or stick to the big city? In the original, Lipton himself played his singing double Everyman in white collar.
With his office perch suddenly threatened, George finds himself surprisingly sentimental about his routine, his colleagues, and the sense of satisfaction he derives from doing his daily job well. No place to go indirectly exploits the prevailing sense of uncertainty that has defined recent years. But that doesn’t fully resonate during this strange time when there are two jobs for every worker, offices are still largely Covid-nucleated ghost towns and “silent quitting” is the talk of the day. Like reruns of Office, the evening feels like an artifact of a bygone era.
That said, the business cycle is called a cycle for a reason. Recession and employer debt are just a pendulum swing away. While right now we can afford to agonize over our work-life balance, when work dries up and we’re replaced by robots, we’ll become unbalanced again in that other way, desperately spew resumes into the void. .
The show could be enjoyed as a living historical snapshot if there was simply more meat to the bones of the script. Unfortunately, the monologues and songs, with sometimes grating transitions, feel like sketchy, promising beginnings to ideas never fully fleshed out.
That doesn’t reflect on the committed and likeable performance of the hardworking Bobby Smith as George, the polished trio of backing instrumentalists, and the excellent production team.
The songs are credited to Lipton and his band, Eben Levy, Ian M. Riggs and Vito Dieterle. There is, of course, a bit of wit in numbers like “Aging Middle-Class Parents,” a tribute to the ever-older boomerang child’s potential sanctuary. “Incorporate” is a super fun tribute to the fast-talking cult of entrepreneurship that capitalism celebrates when all else fails. And “The Mighty Mensch,” a eulogy of sorts for recently deceased colleague Mark, is adorable. Haven’t we all known and loved a kind, prankish office friend who loves baseball and listens like the late great Mark?
Other songs, like “Shitstorm,” about corporate chaos, sound obvious and repetitive. “Soccer Song,” a beat machine-accompanied number about the dynamics of a working league team, seems to aim for Meredith Wilson’s style with a dollop of rap, but it’s gritty.
The charismatic and talented Smith is a Signature favorite, and for good reason. In a mode of confidence reminiscent of the young Shelley Berman, Smith does everything that can be done to sell George’s vague personality. Smith also impressively handles stylistically wandering vocals from loungey crooner to rockabilly to folk pop, swaying Latin rhythms and even a little offbeat James Brown-y. There’s also a fun, recurring nonsensical rock riff from the perspective of a freezing turkey and cheese sandwich.
Riggs – bassist, acoustic guitarist, arranger and musical director – along with saxophonist Grant Langford and electric guitarist Tom Lagana, provide propelling backing and catchy solos. Paige Hathaway’s set is cleverly lit by Max Doolittle. Faux wood paneling and carpets camouflaging sickly green stains are illuminated by soul-sucking fluorescent lights with a touch of warm, natural sunshine seductively hidden behind vertical blinds. As the songs progress, however, it all becomes a flashing disco-strobe multicolored alternate universe.
With these clever accoutrements, the hour and a half sails quickly but unforgettable. “Anxiety is just excitement in disguise,” George tries to convince himself. But as rendered here, her anxiety just isn’t that exciting.
Photograph by Christopher Mueller