A job means different things to different people. To the employed, it is what we must do in order to pay for what we want to do. To the employer, it is too often something that can almost always be done more cheaply and lucratively by almost anybody else, usually someplace else.
At least such was the case for Brooklyn-based playwright-performer and sardonic balladeer Ethan Lipton. Last year, Lipton's part-time, zero-benefits, 10-year publishing company gig went the way of too many living-wage jobs under the profit-bloated cupidity of post-Reagan corporate America — out of town and into the greener, cost-cutting pastures of a distant someplace else.
Lipton, however, was more fortunate than some of his suddenly phased-out co-workers. The lyricist and frontman for his “old-timey” jazz quartet, the Ethan Lipton Orchestra, had at hand both the creative means and the money (via a serendipitous, NEA-financed commission from Joe's Pub at the Public Theater) to channel the experience and his frustration into a more satisfying kind of payback.
The result was No Place to Go, Lipton's highly acclaimed evening of music and wryly ironic, mock-heroic musings on both cutthroat corporate perfidy and the dignity of the workplace, which completed a successful run at New York's Joe's Pub in June and now is hitting the road.
When it arrives in L.A. for a one-night stand at downtown's Grand Performances Aug. 18 (the band will also perform a noontime set of their non-No Place to Go tunes on Aug. 17), it will mark something of a homecoming: Lipton grew up in grew up in Northridge and Van Nuys, went to high school in Reseda and graduated from UCLA before heading east to make his name on the New York stage.
Over the phone, Lipton's voice is immediately recognizable from the show's video — equal measures of whiskey and Satchmo gravel that lend his singing a sonorous and soulful gravitas perfectly suited to the wide range of pop musical genres surveyed in No Place to Go.
Lipton is quick to deny that the show should only be read as the ultimate fuck-you swan song to a treacherous ex-employer. “Anger is definitely one of the things that's in there — anger at the company, which really just takes care of itself,” he says. “And anger at the national situation that has created this particular climate. But I also wanted to try and document the workplace as a place of dignity.”
For Lipton, writing the show presented an opportunity to work through his conflicting feelings about a job that seemingly meant little but in reality had been a big part of his life. “I just remember it was such a complicated experience to find out that we were losing our jobs,” he reflects. “And everybody handled it a little differently. And we all kind of felt we were in quicksand a little bit — it was really hard to kind of just move on. And I guess it made itself clear as a relationship with all the complexities that implies.”
Apart from the satiric bite of Lipton's dry wit and the accomplished arrangements of the show's dozen songs (Lipton is backed by band members Eben Levy, Ian M. Riggs and Vito Dieterle), No Place to Go is perhaps most remarkable for its heart. For Lipton, that was the real point. “I was really concerned about writing a piece for those people who I worked with,” he says. “I knew it wasn't going to be their experience, because everybody has their own story, but I wanted them to recognize their experience.”
The effort certainly paid off. Apart from the hit run at Joe's Pub, the show also garnered a rave review from Ben Brantley in The New York Times, plus an Obie Award. In short, it transformed the self-described “emerging playwright and old-timey singer-songwriter” overnight into the toast of the town.
Not insignificantly, the success has also allowed Lipton to put off an unpleasantness that now may no longer be inevitable. “It's a little surreal,” he says. “You know, I still have not taken a new job, so I'm trying to hustle the opportunities that I have right now and keep that going as long as I can.” Not least of those opportunities is the summer tour. “The show is in many ways about this town that I live in,” he muses. “But I'm really interested now to see if the show connects with people in other places. Because that's sort of the big reason to keep doing it.”
No Place to Go plays admission-free at Grand Performances, Sat. Aug. 18.