NEW YORK — Whenever Ethan Lipton performs his musical ode to the unemployed, “No Place to Go,” audience members often stream up to him afterward, eager to talk about their own experiences of being laid off or downsized out of a job. What he notices is the way their voice catches or the distinct look of recognition in their eyes, that they’ve found someone to confide in who understands what they’ve gone through.
One of the “secret weapons” of the show is that it “documents an undignified experience that adults don’t really get to talk about much these days,” says Lipton, a New York-based playwright, songwriter, and performer.
“I think the show deals with some things that people don’t even share with their own family members about the experience of unemployment — about the inability to move forward and the struggle to direct your energy, the struggle to find a new place in the world.”
Despite the sobering statistics, the jobless are often invisible. But like Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” attention must be paid to their stories, Lipton insists. He based “No Place to Go” on his own experiences as a permanent part-timer who lost his steady gig after his company moved out of town. ArtsEmerson is presenting the Obie Award-winning musical, performed by Lipton and his three-piece band, at the Emerson/Paramount Center’s Black Box Theater Feb. 20-22.
“A job, what you do for a living, is a huge part of our world and our life and our identity as people,” Lipton says.
In the one-man musical monologue, Lipton narrates the personal story of losing his day job as an “information-refiner” at an unnamed publication, in between songs performed by him and his band. As a permanent part-time employee of his company, he notes drily, “that means I’m there for most of the work and few of the benefits.” He has the day job in order to support his artistic life as “an emerging playwright” and “old-timey singer-songwriter,” which means that “by the time I die I will be rich in anecdotes,” he cracks.
While his day job put food in his mouth and enabled his work as a writer, he soon realizes that his life is “standing on nothing but the slenderest thread of magical thinking.” It turns out that the company he works for, despite “turning a profit during the worst financial crisis in 80 years,” has decided to pull up stakes and transfer the operation to a less expensive place, far, far away: Mars. Indeed, “No Place to Go” is rife with such gentle whimsy and droll humor.
With his rumpled look and suit reminiscent of a ’70s lounge singer, Lipton is part oddball Big Band balladeer, part Woody Guthrie-style troubadour for our troubled times. As the show unfolds, Lipton evokes the pain, anxiety, and humiliation of losing a job, the sense of disorientation and the loss of identity. But he performs it all with a fondness for finding absurdity amid the gloom.
The songs are a Cuisinart blend of various genres, from jazz and blues sounds to country, folk, and more lounge-y numbers. There’s a tune about a fellow co-worker Mark Giles, “The Mighty Mensch,” a lament about being forced to move in with one’s “Aging Middle-Class Parents,” and an ode to the New Deal-era WPA and its leader Harry Hopkins.
“No Place to Go” premiered at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in November 2011 during the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It returned for an extended run in March 2012 and went on to win an Obie. Since that time, Lipton and his band (Vito Dieterle, Eben Levy, and Ian Riggs) have taken the show on tour to a dozen US cities and England, where they performed for a month-long run in London.
He recently brought the show to a small town in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains. Afterward, a man in the audience shared the story of losing his job at a tool manufacturing plant. “His job had been eliminated, and then he had gone back to school at Penn State, you know, in his late 40s or early 50s, and gave himself this kind of amazing experience of a later-life education,” Lipton says. “And then he couldn’t get hired again.”
Leigh Silverman, who directed the premiere of “No Place to Go” at Joe’s Pub, calls herself a “super-fan groupie” of Lipton and his band. Long before she got involved in the musical, she would see them perform around the city.
Reading a draft of the script, she says, “I felt like he had his finger on a Zeitgeist moment. He captured an experience that many people are going through right now.
“He is charming and witty. He is unpretentious. He is emotionally available. He is the perfect kind of everyman for us to talk about the struggle between art and commerce, ambition and reality, the love of your craft and the need to support yourself,” Silverman says.
She also felt like Lipton was inventing a new form of theater. “He was asking all the rigorous questions you ask when you’re working on a musical. I tried to help him shape the piece and make it feel less like a gig and more like a play. Together we were able to figure out something that has the vibe and the spirit of one of his great concerts, but also delivered a real story.”
In person, Lipton is soft-spoken and unassuming, with sorrowful eyes, a halfhearted mustache, and the same gentle wit that suffuses “No Place to Go.”
“I don’t know if I’m actually very funny as an individual. But a lot of my work tends to be,” he says. “I like my plays to have both heart and irony occupying the same space.”
Lipton lives with his wife, a photographer, in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, a longtime enclave for musicians and artists that has become increasingly gentrified in recent years. Indeed, “No Place to Go” can be seen as an ode to a New York where artists could actually create work and eke out a living, a much more tenuous prospect these days.
“One of the reasons why the thing has had legs, in a way I wasn’t sure that it would, is because it gets at these issues from a personal perspective,” he says. “But there’s also something about the experience of being kind of squeezed out that is so universally resonant and that seems to affect a larger portion of the middle class now.”
It was important, Lipton says, to avoid any hint of self-help dogma in the show or feed into the illusions we often sell ourselves: that going through a difficult experience makes you a better person.
“When people say, ‘Oh, but I’m going to turn it into a victory,’ that’s a fantasy about how it should work. It is a coping mechanism for dealing with loss and defeat,” he says. “I didn’t want the moral of this piece to be: We got screwed over, and wasn’t it all for the best?”
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg @gmail.com.