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“Facts is another department,” the put-upon, vaguely Winston Smith-like narrator of Ethan Lipton’s mournful, tuneful, and appealingly bizarre cabaret-style musical No Place to Go tells us. His job is to refine information, not ascertain its veracity. His name is George, though that matters little, and he’s an aspiring playwright, which matters less. He has held his “permanent part-time” position as an “information refiner” for 10 years. Faced with the alarming news that his employer will soon relocate to the low-tax jurisdiction of Mars—not Pennsylvania, but the Red Planet—George must decide whether to adopt the hardscrabble lifestyle of a Martian colonist or face the only slightly less forbidding prospect of reentering the job market in late middle age.
The piece, which librettist and composer Lipton first performed at New York’s Joe’s Pub a decade ago, is an ideal showcase for the expressive pipes and the careworn demeanor of Signature Theatre regular Bobby Smith, who shares the inner deliberations of this undervalued man through a series of 11 songs. Most are mid tempo jazz numbers, though there are ballads, rockers, and even a James Brown-style funk pastiche called “The Mighty Mensch.” (The terrific three-piece band sharing the stage with Smith is made up of Tom Lagana on guitar, Grant Langford on saxophone, and Ian M. Riggs—who collaborated on the score with Lipton a decade ago—on upright bass and other instruments.) One or two are throwaways: a gag number that seems to be called “The Final Sandwich,” but isn’t listed in the program with the other songs gets reprised at least one too many times throughout the 85-minute evening. But most are funny and surprising, offering a fresh insight into George’s fragile psyche even as they pull the story into ever more surreal territory.
Watching Smith wrestle with his decision, and eventually talk himself into making a choice, reminded me of the Samuel Beckett play Happy Days, wherein a woman who’s buried up to her waist in the first act and up to her neck in the second nevertheless tries to to remain upbeat. It was the 1961 version of the “This Is Fine” meme of the coffee-drinking dog in the burning house.
Signature artistic director Matthew Gardiner told the press he came across Lipton’s script in the early months of the pandemic, and it spoke to his anxieties about live theater’s uncertain future. He sent it on to Smith, intending to stage the show only if Smith agreed to star. The paradox here is that Smith is a star, even as he plays a lowly paper-pusher and undiscovered artist, and—in another running gag—repeatedly fails to acknowledge the contributions of his bandmates to the various songs of sorrow he’s singing. It’s a good reminder that no matter how undervalued we may feel, we’re probably undervaluing someone else in turn. That adds a layer of emotional insight to No Place to Go’s more familiar, but still heartfelt, lament for the lowly worker in the capitalist machine, which all adds up to a lot of value packed in a slender 85 minutes. No place to go? Go here.
No Place to Go, written by Ethan Lipton with music by Lipton, Eben Levy, Ian M. Riggs, and Vito Dieterle, music direction by Riggs, and directed by Matthew Gardiner plays at Signature Theatre through Oct. 16. sigtheatre.org. $40–$90.