If Dilbert could sing, he might sound like Ethan Lipton.
Lipton’s “No Place to Go’’ is a blend of song, monologue, and deadpan commentary that offers a portrait of The Way We Work Now. Its tale of one man’s journey from underemployment to unemployment depicts the modern American employee as a hostage to corporate whim, tossed about like a cork on a wholly indifferent sea and able only to dream about things like pensions and decent health care coverage and sick leave.
That’s a message with the ring of bleak and dispiriting truth. So why did I have such a good time at “No Place to Go,’’ which opened Thursday night at the Emerson/Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box and runs through Saturday?
Part of it has to do with the wryly absurdist flavor of Lipton’s script, and part to do with Lipton himself, a sad-eyed, mustached Everyman whose features are often arranged in a wince, as if bracing for life’s next blow. A talented playwright whose antiwar satire “Luther’’ was produced with mixed results last year at Apollinaire Theatre Company in Chelsea, Lipton cuts a Tom Waitsian figure onstage, his movements herky-jerky, delivering bluesy tunes in a sandpapery voice while ably backed by Vito Dieterle on saxophone, Eben Levy on electric guitar, and Ian Riggs on bass.
The first-person story Lipton tells in “No Place to Go’’ is of a guy whose job as an “information refiner’’ at a nameless corporation (his status is “permanent part-time’’ — how very 2014) is jeopardized when the company announces it is moving to . . . Mars. While pondering whether to relocate, he is forced to confront the hollowness of all the assumptions he has made that rest on the basic fact that he has a job. “I am standing on nothing but the slenderest thread of magical thinking,’’ he says.
How to respond? In one song, he ponders the potential upside to self-incorporation (“I’m gonna give myself some tax incentives just for sticking around’’); in another, he weighs the possibility of moving back in with his aging parents. He croons a goodbye ballad to his job, and he literally sings the praises of Harry Hopkins and the Works Progress Administration.
Of course, the WPA was made possible by a national consensus that could be boiled down to: We’re all in this together. Contrast that with our own era, where the fear of falling so astutely captured in “No Place to Go’’ is exacerbated by the sense that the social contract has been abrogated (just ask the long-term unemployed). Or, as Lipton puts it, “The thread is broken. I heard it snap.’’Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.