“No Place to Go,” Ethan Lipton’s irreverent musical about entering the void of the unemployed, yields knowing laughter from the apparent absurdity of a “permanent part-time” job. But if there ever were an endorsement for such an arrangement, it may be star Bobby Smith — who as a Signature freelancer, like most actors the theater employs, is marking his 28th production with the Arlington troupe.
A surrealist and semi-autobiographical one-man show of sorts, first staged by Lipton and his three-person band at New York’s Joe’s Pub in 2012, “No Place to Go” has never been performed by anyone other than its author until now. Unsurprisingly, the endlessly appealing Smith proves himself to be a worthy successor. As the 50-year-old George, a part-time information refiner and side-hustling writer who learns that his job is moving to Mars, Smith balances the character’s world weariness with natural charm and the sardonic edge of a man who can only laugh at his lot in life.
Whether he’s wielding a sly eyebrow raise or pregnant pause, Smith brings comic sense to Lipton’s spot-on satire of corporate culture and the daily office grind. George is amusingly obtuse about most everything — work, family, political beliefs — in a way that speaks to the cold calculus that converts humans into numbers on a spreadsheet. His complaints about rising rents and substandard insurance sent pangs of recognition through the audience on Thursday’s opening night, as did his tragically misguided fantasy that his employer will recognize his value or rue his absence once he’s gone.
Smith’s cavernous vocal range allows him to not only traverse but also elevate Lipton’s irresistible score (co-composed by original bandmates Eben Levy, Vito Dieterle and Ian M. Riggs). That songbook leans on blues and jazz, with enjoyable detours into country (the toe-tapping romp “Aging Middle-Class Parents”) and dance pop (“Soccer Song,” a pitch-perfect sendup of rec sports’ quirks). George’s bandmates — saxophonist Sal (Grant Langford), guitarist Jonah (Tom Lagana) and bass player Duke (Riggs, a member of Lipton’s band who also serves as music director here) — punctuate their musical contributions with dashes of levity.
Under director Matthew Gardiner, who has reimagined this lounge show as something more theatrical, “No Place to Go” unfolds in scenic designer Paige Hathaway’s instantly identifiable office drone habitat. The set comes complete with AstroTurf-green carpeting, wood-paneling and a bulky copy machine, though there’s more to the design than meets the eye. Max Doolittle’s lighting accentuates the difference between George’s sobering storytelling and his musical tangents, as fluorescent lights give way to pops of green on brassy interludes about that last sandwich in the conference room and striking strobe lights liven one rip-roaring number.
Although Lipton wrote “No Place to Go” in response to the financial crisis more than a decade ago, Gardiner’s shrewd decision to revive the show amid the pandemic accentuates the unnerving specter of joblessness. If this is an employee evaluation, then he gets full marks — for casting Smith, of course, and for understanding that “No Place to Go” has a way forward.
No Place to Go, by Ethan Lipton. Music by Lipton, Eben Levy, Ian M. Riggs and Vito Dieterle. Directed by Matthew Gardiner. Music direction, Riggs; set, Paige Hathaway; costumes, Frederick P. Deeben; lighting, Max Doolittle; sound, Matt Rowe. About 85 minutes. Through Oct. 16 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. sigtheatre.org.