The United States’s recent high unemployment has forced us to reassess what it is we hope for from a job. Money? Sure. Security? For some. Usually though, the most basic guarantees of a mundane office job are a place to go and people to be with.
These benefits may be taken for granted by many people, but not by Ethan Lipton, author and star of NO PLACE TO GO, a jazz cabaret musical holding down a steady gig at Red Bank’s Two River Theater Company through November 4th. For Lipton—or at least the show’s semi-autobiographical persona who bears his name—his mundane “permanent part-time” office job is a beautiful social ritual full of jokes at the meetings with the bagels, happy birthday Tuesdays, and a reason to make himself smell nice. “Man I’m not kidding when I tell ya,” he says at the close of the show’s opening number which reflects on all the quotidian interpersonal niceties of office life, “I love my job.”
Sadly, the job in which Lipton takes so much simple pleasure is in jeopardy, forcing him to take stock of his commitments.
Charming in its story and characterization, and truly unique as a theatrical experience, NO PLACE TO GO features only Lipton and a three-piece jazz band on a tiny stage that Two River has built into its black box space, beautifully converted into a facsimile cabaret nightclub. The show might be called “musical monologue,” with Lipton as storyteller narrating through both talk and song. The story is familiar enough: a big company is relocating and has reluctantly invited all employees to come, putting everybody in the position of choosing between their job and their comfortable lives.
Present-tense narration allows us to experience Lipton’s journey with him, from bewilderment through bargaining, to frustrated planning and anxious fear of the unknown. Throughout, we get the clear sense that the job Lipton claims to love so much is simply a means to an end, a vehicle through which to enjoy people and life’s little rituals, and that his real crisis is trying to decide what matters most in his pleasantly ordinary life.
Uninhibited by rigid theatrical customs, NO PLACE TO GO is closer to a scripted concert than to a musical. Opening undramatically with Lipton’s backing band taking the stage to tune up, the destabilizing of expectations is immediately apparent by the smattering of tepid applause in the audience, as if to say “Wait, do we clap? Like at a concert? Oh, but this isn’t actually a concert? OK, I’ll stop.” A minute later, Lipton saunters out and begins the story. With a gristly narration voice and an understated talking-blues singing voice, Lipton embraces his normality in a plain suit and tie, bushy mustache, and receding hairline. Neither rock star nor slick lounge singer, he is simply and perfectly Everyman: a young Willy Loman fronting a jazz band. In a just-right 85 minutes, the show makes little pretense of theatricality. This is a musical at once simple and immediate, featuring just a man, a microphone, and a band.
Billed as “Ethan Lipton & His Orchestra,” the first-rate band performs that particular brand of nightclub jazz that can only come from a fat hollow-bodied electric guitar, upright bass, and freewheeling saxophone. Intricate and taught, the music flows smoothly from background ambiance to featured performer as the narrative dictates. Both Vito Dieterle on sax and Eben Levy on guitar make the most of a few solos, but ultimately this is a band of balance and unity, dutifully deploying its impressive range in support of the narrative’s ebb and flow.
Although always witty and occasionally quirky, some songs are less successful than others. “An Only Man” and “Shitstorm” combine early to make for a tedious stretch. As appropriate as that may be to the narrator’s growing anxiety, it seems concept may have overwhelmed Lipton’s otherwise adept tunefulness. This tedium is ultimately broken by a pair of the show’s highlights. The jangly acoustic pop of “Aging Middle-Class Parents” flows into the slap-bass funk swagger of “Incorporate,” and the show becomes most fun when Lipton’s character is at the end of his wits.
Uncertain how to reconcile himself to unemployment, he suggests to his wife that they move in with his parents (after staging a contest between his two sets of parents for the honor, of course). In the face of resistance he dismisses his suggestion as a “sacrificial plan” to “make look bad on purpose so that the next idea looks good.” He then decides to incorporate himself just like a big business: sell shares, limit liability, and hire himself a board of directors.
Later musical highlights include “Mighty Mensch,” a sweet panegyric to the spirit of a respected former colleague known to bring munchkins to meetings and sing show tunes in the cubicle aisles, and the deceptively catchy electronically beat-boxed “Soccer Song,” reflecting on the lost fun of the office soccer team.
The tunes and story are powerfully accented by the show’s atmosphere. If we consider NO PLACE TO GO a musical rather than a concert, we must then also consider it immersive theater, with the audience playing the role of cabaret club patrons. The Two River design team of Rachael Hauck (sets), Ben Stanton (lighting), and Acme Sound Design has achieved a wonderful transformation of black box into cabaret, replete with a framed stage, small dining tables, a raised lounge area with a large bar, and mood lighting provided by candles in mason jars. Bare industrial light bulbs hang above the stage, underscoring the basement-club aesthetic.
The experience is enhanced by food and drink service starting an hour before show time (no liquor license means no booze, but if a cup of coffee is four bucks, one shudders to forecast the price of a martini). Two River’s characteristically impressive eye for detail, and wherewithal to realize a vision, has made NO PLACE TO GO an experience that productively challenges traditional conceptions of musical theater.
Eschewing anger, NO PLACE TO GO takes a reflective approach to the loss of the “security” we expect from a job. Lipton’s character seems lost and confused—and even a little bitter at times—but he is grateful for the people his job brought into his life, and anxious about the uncharted road ahead. Ultimately, the show suggests that the uncertainty of having no place to go conceals the opportunity of having almost any place to go, as long as that journey prioritizes people and the mutual benefits of sociality.
NO PLACE TO GO
Written by Ethan Lipton
Directed by Leigh Silverman
October 6 – November 4, 2012
Two River Theater Company
21 Bridge Avenue
Red Bank NJ, 07701