What happens when life on earth just becomes too much? It’s a not-so-existential question asked by Ethan Lipton in his latest quirky musical story adventure, The Outer Space, which opened March 8 at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater. For more than a decade, Ethan Lipton + His Orchestra (Eben Levy, Ian M. Riggs and Vito Dieterle) have been delivering jazz-inflected story songs to hipster New Yorkers. Lipton has simultaneously established his own career as a playwright. He is an alum of The Public’s Emerging Writers Group, a Clubbed Thumb associate artist, and a Playwrights Realm Page One fellow. His Obie award-winning musical, No Place to Go, was produced by The Public and has toured nationally. So all things considered, life on earth for Lipton isn’t half bad. But that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be better in outer space.
Constructed as a series of story songs, narrative, one-off jokes and musical interludes, The Outer Space follows the emotional trappings of a couple who vacate earth for new life high in the sky — orbiting Mercury, specifically. They’ve bought “a charming Victorian craft” in the hopes of rediscovering themselves, their relationship, and perhaps, the meaning of happiness. The wife is happy with their decision, while the husband suffers from space sadness, defined as “a combination of despair, mono, and a shitty attitude.” These nuanced, urban riffs ripple throughout Lipton’s work, set against whimsical scenic and costume designs by David Zinn that set a tone of ‘let’s not take ourselves too seriously.’
And while the subtle jabs and life’s inadequacies ripple freely off of Lipton’s tongue, he questions early on just what sort of potential we have for change:
Have you ever known someone who said they wanted to do something very different with their life, because they thought it would make them a happier person? And have you ever said to that someone, “Yes! You should totally do that thing!” all while thinking, I’m not sure it’s going to make you a happier person. Well, you were right. It doesn’t work that way. You don’t just transform your circumstance and get happier. Except when you do.
Lipton is sharp-witted when it comes to painting the picture of spacecraft life, which basically equates to small town living amid a colony of 3,100 people in 450 vessels (“with quite a few others in the outskirts”) and equally adept at lyrics in such ditties as “A to Z,” an alphabetical tongue twister about all of the things the couple enjoys together, or “Yoga/Not Yoga,” which mildly pokes fun at our struggles to find internal peace.
Lipton charismatically carries us along this journey in a soft-spoken, NPR kind of way. His baritone vocals won’t blow the roof off of Joe’s Pub, but it’s a soothing, unique delivery that complements his band’s terrific musicality. It is this sum of the parts that has made Ethan Lipton + His Orchestra so unique.
Lipton is at ease under the direction of Leigh Silverman (Violet, Sweet Charity, Kung Fu), who gently guides this mission to outer space and inner exploration. At the end of The Outer Space’s 90 minutes, I’m not sure I was any closer to discovering “the dream of letting go” or “the other dream being just a human being.” But it was still worth the ride.
The Outer Space
Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street, NYC
Through April 9