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Review: NO PLACE TO GO at Signature Theatre

This bittersweet love letter to the workplace runs through October 16

Review: NO PLACE TO GO at Signature Theatre

Once upon a time, the Great Recession decimated the job market and consolidations, closures, and buyouts brought darkness upon the land. That's the framing of Ethan Lipton's No Place to Go, a slight, whimsical cabaret piece that has evolved since its New York premiere a decade ago into a full production directed by Matthew Gardiner at Signature Theatre.

In this solid rendering of Lipton's amiably surreal but undernourished script, Lipton's alter-ego protagonist, George, is an "information refiner" for a New York company that is about to relocate -- to Mars. He is "permanent part-time" at the firm and, though it lacks benefits, the gig has long sustained him and his wife, Martha, as they've pursued their artistic passions. Should they follow his paycheck to Mars or stick it out in the big city? In the original, Lipton himself played his singing white-collar Everyman double.

With his office perch suddenly threatened, George finds himself unexpectedly sentimental about his routine, his colleagues, and the sense of satisfaction he derives from doing his day job well. No Place to Go indirectly taps the prevailing sense of uncertainty that has defined the last several years. But it doesn't fully resonate during this strange period in which there are two jobs for every one worker, offices are still largely Covid-nuked ghost towns, and "quiet quitting" is the talk of the day. Like reruns of The Office, the evening feels like an artifact from a bygone era.

That said, the business cycle is called a cycle for a reason. Recession and employers' leverage are just a swing of the pendulum away. While at the moment we can afford to agonize over our work-life balance, when the work dries up and we're replaced by robots we'll become unbalanced again in that other way, desperately spewing resumes into the void.

The show could be appreciated as a vivid historical snapshot if there were simply more meat on the script's bones. Unfortunately, the monologues and songs, with sometimes creaky transitions, feel like fragmentary, promising starts to ideas never fully fleshed out.

That is no reflection on the hard-working Bobby Smith's committed and likable performance as George, the polished trio of instrumentalists that support him, and the excellent production team.

The songs are credited to Lipton and his band, Eben Levy, Ian M. Riggs, and Vito Dieterle. There is, to be sure, some wit to numbers like "Aging Middle-Class Parents," an homage to the potential sanctuary of the ever-older boomerang child. "Incorporate" is an amusing, hyper salute to the fast-talking cult of entrepreneurship that capitalism celebrates when all else fails. And "The Mighty Mensch," a tuneful eulogy of sorts for Mark, a recently deceased coworker, is sweet. Haven't we all known and cherished a gentle-jokester baseball-loving ear-lending office pal like the late, great Mark?

Other songs, like "Shitstorm," about the approaching corporate chaos, feel obvious and repetitive. "Soccer Song," a rhythm-machine accompanied number about the dynamics of a work-league team, seems to be aiming for Meredith Wilson-style talk-singing with a dollop of rap, but it's grating.

The charismatic and talented Smith is a Signature favorite, and for good reason. In a young Shelley Berman-reminiscent confidant mode, Smith does all that can be done to sell the vague persona of George. Smith also impressively manages the stylistically wandering vocals from loungey crooner to rockabilly to folk pop to swaying Latin rhythms and even an off-kilter James Brown-y bit. There's a fun recurring absurdist rock riff too from the point of view of a congealing turkey and cheese sandwich.

Riggs -- bassist, acoustic guitarist, arranger, and musical director -- along with saxophonist Grant Langford and electric guitarist Tom Lagana, provide propellant backing and snappy solos. Paige Hathaway's set is smartly lit by Max Doolittle. Fake-wood paneling and sickly green stain-camouflaging carpet are lit by soul-sucking fluorescent lights with a tease of warm natural sunshine seductively hidden behind the vertical blinds. During the songs, however, all that becomes a flashing disco-strobed multicolored alternative universe.

With those clever accoutrements, the hour and a half sails by quickly but unmemorably. "Anxiety is just excitement in disguise," George tries to persuade himself. But as rendered here, his anxiety just isn't that exciting.

Photograph by Christopher Mueller


From This Author - Alexander C. Kafka

Alexander C. Kafka is a journalist and photographer. He has written about books and the arts for The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, D.C. Theatre Scene, <... (read more about this author)

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