Ethan Lipton is last on stage, and as he picks his way through the scattered cabaret tables, the band has already started playing – a perky, clean-shaven jazz intro. Lipton speaks over the top of the trio (Vito Dieterle on sax, Eben Levy on electric guitar and Ian Riggs on bass and acoustic guitar), before sliding into the first number. All four men are dressed for the office but, as the minimal set signals (broken keyboards plastered to the walls make an abstract backdrop) we are not quite in the cosy world of smooth jazz bands and the average workplace.
No Place To Go is at once a story for our times, an elegy for the lost age of the steady 9-to-5 and home ownership, and a vision of a post-rapture world, with lots of Orwellian touches. As the show goes on, the sax solos get more downbeat and Lipton's storytelling takes some increasingly surreal turns. Lipton's character is an "Information Refiner" and works part-time for a large company which plans to reduce its workforce by stealth by moving to Mars, where production is cheaper. Lipton fantasises about the finer things in life: "you know what I'm talking about?" he asks us. "I'm talking about a pension... health insurance". These are the kinds of luxuries a part-timer like him can only dream of. But he loves his job. He loves the people he works with, and he loves having something to get up in the morning for – "everyone needs a place to go", he sings. Now he is faced with a choice: either he moves with the company to Mars, leaving behind all that is familiar to him, or he loses his job which, with the economy in the state it's in (he tells us), will leave him facing long-term unemployment.
Apart from the Mars bit, it's a familiar enough story. No Place To Go mixes the comic and surreal with the painfully realistic, expertly. It's easy to see why Ethan Lipton & his Orchestra has been named the city's "Best Lounge Act" by New York Magazine. Lipton is clearly as at home as a singer as he is as an actor and writer and it's this coupling of a rich live sound (Lipton's gravelly voice conjures up late night cabaret bars more than fringe theatres) with witty and often poignant writing that makes the show such a stand-out piece.
If the play runs the slight risk of becoming a one-trick pony, with the joke being the contrast between mundane lyrics and portentous music, and the bathos of expressing small-town worries in a post-apocalyptic world, Lipton's ear for naturalistic speech keeps it fresh. He is particularly perceptive when it comes to the habits and phrases of office banter. As his character eulogises the joys of a steady job and a having a workplace to go to, he tells us that once a month they sing the birthday song, "on happy birthday Tuesday" and when his gorgeously rich bass wraps up another number with a slow, drawled "I'm going to see what's sweet in the vending machine", he gets a big laugh. Familiar workplace details like this are incorporated into dramatic refrains brilliantly. Someone's comment on the way the company is headed, "there's a shit storm coming", becomes an epic chorus sung in four-part harmony.
The script and lyrics are funny, but No Place To Go is not all jokes. There were times when Lipton struck me as a modern Mooney (of Peter Terson's Mooney and His Caravans) – exploited by his bosses and deluded. Lines such as "It's not personal, it's just that everyone is accountable to the shareholder" project a dark shadow over the high spirits in the room. As our hero natters away, he paints a bleak picture of daily life, breaking it down into its constituent parts: he has a team he supports, a man he reads about in the tabloids, and a political party. When he's at his desk at work, he sometimes goes online and reads about these things.
No Place to Go is part of the Gate Theatre's "These American Lives" season of award-winning plays from the US. True to the season's title, this piece is both a portrait of our time, painted in surreal technicolour, and also a deeply sensitive portrayal of one individual's experience of the universe – sung to some great tunes.