As an usher scanned the tickets, our heads were filled with images of how we remembered the theater from last year’s The Hendrix Project: comfortable, steep risers for spectators; nosebleed, graffiti-splattered bleachers for the playing space; concert lighting spreading color everywhere. To our surprise, the Segerstrom’s Samueli Theater was decked out as a nightclub, with four-tops lit by flickering lamps and a stage at the far end. The only things missing were a dance floor and table service.
The setup was perfect for No Place to Go, the third and final show of this year’s Off Center Festival.
The Obie-winning performance is a fantastic hybrid of a concert and a play. Ethan Lipton’s musical monologue melts from spiels underscored by upright bass, sax and electric guitar to songs to spoken word sans accompaniment. It’s a tale of an “emerging playwright and singer/songwriter of old-timey songs,” a.k.a. Lipton, whose permanent part-time job is about to move far, far away after it has supported his and his wife’s art-making adventures, as well as feeding their dog and cat, for the past 10 years.
The question is: Should they stay, or should they go?
The already-profitable corporation is off to Mars, where costs are rock bottom. Plus, Mars taxpayers are funding the move. As a skilled “information refiner,” our protagonist is hoping relocation will lead to full-time status; when you’re permanent part-time, you get “all the time, none of the benefits,” he says. But no. When he finally has his meeting with the “corporate resources” lady, what’s his incentive to uproot his life for the Red Planet? The corporation will pay moving expenses; but if he doesn’t last a year, that money will have to be reimbursed. His severance if he stays in “our town”? A week for every year he’s worked—except you need to be full-time to qualify.
Lipton’s words are quirky, spare, just right; his anachronisms downright delightful (He’s a “Tom Joad with a sandwich in his backpack.”). With a charming weirdness and deft acting chops, Lipton navigates the deep dilemma he faces, while remaining quippy and cool and sometimes corny. As a vocalist, he croons and speaks plain, laments (he didn’t get to give his “I quit” speech) and scats, or crouches and growls (“Shitstorm,” a favorite of mine, complete with a four-part harmony section à la “Twist and Shout” on the title word) his way to a decision.
Co-written with his orchestra, the music is decidedly Dust Bowl, as Lipton describes it, but there’s plenty of Brooklyn thrown in. During the times they don’t play, the musicians sip water and watch Lipton in case he ad libs, their smiles letting on when he does. Each time a band member clears his throat to hint at why he should stick around on Earth, Lipton thinks they are trying to get introduced to the audience for a round of applause—which we do with gusto because Eben Levy (electric guitar), Vito Dieterle (sax) and Ian Riggs (bass) are just so damn good. We’re the reason to stay, man! But Lipton doesn’t get it.
The music, lyrics and orchestra’s size have a Great Depression-era bent, which looks about the right vintage for Dieterle’s saxophone. But the song “WPA” hits the rusty nail on the head. As Lipton sings of a time when we built dams, roads and bridges “that we still use today,” and Harry Hopkins, who ran the program that invested in America, believed “even artists need to eat,” the subtext cuts straight to today: build infrastructure, not a wall. Check out Season 1, Episode 5 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to see them perform “WPA” at Midge’s home club.
Adaptability, Lipton tells us as he grapples with unemployment, is the key to 21st-century life, so he is going to “Incorporate,” which is one funk-heavy tune: “Do you like triple-grade-A baloney? Then you can buy a piece of me,” goes the refrain. There was also a country-tinged piece and running rockers that had me dancing in my chair.
Ultimately, our antihero decides to stay put. For the climactic montage (song-tage?), a bit of theatricality comes in, with a projection lighting up the back wall in slashes of primary colors against a Mars-red wash. The corporation’s last days on Earth are cut into a delightfully rhythmic play-by-play of Lipton’s final team soccer game.
While the first song, “Place to Go,” revels in the routine and camaraderie of work, as well as the fact that he’s good at his job, in the last, he has “Nothing But a Comeback” in his wallet. Comeback, as in he’ll land on his feet, as my friend thought? Or is he the guy who always has a retort ready, destined to get ever more bitter as his life ends “rich only in anecdotes”? I’m barely leaning toward my friend’s optimistic take.
Joe’s Pub, the music venue of New York City’s Public Theater that’s named for beloved founder Joe Papp, commissioned Lipton to write a play around the time Occupy Wall Street got going, just when his steady part-time income stream was getting diverted elsewhere. No Place to Go premiered in 2012. As serendipity would have it, Leigh Silverman directed it. Since then, the two have paired on many of Lipton’s premieres.
Since her collaboration on Lisa Kron’s Well moved to Broadway in 2006, the director has established a stellar reputation for working closely with playwrights on new material. At the time of Well, Silverman was just 31 years old and only the seventh woman to direct on the venerable theater street.
For 15 years, the Public Theater has produced Under the Radar, a festival whose mission is to track new theater; 21 performers from nine countries played over 10 days last month. Two of those shows, Hear Word! from Nigeria and Evolution of a Sonero from the Bronx, made the trip west, making all three Off Center weekends a perfect expression of the Joe’s Pub mission “to explore the intersection of music and theater.”
Can’t wait to see the 2020 lineups on both coasts.
Lisa Black proofreads the dead-tree edition of the Weekly and writes about the arts and South County beaches. Her OC roots go back to the Cuckoo’s Nest but she left to create original theater on four continents, then returned to bodysurf small waves.