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Theatre in Review: The Outer Space (The Public Theater/Joe's Pub)

Ethan Lipton. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Do you ever dream of fleeing the pains of city life for something more salubrious -- say, to orbit around the planet Mercury? That's the fantastically fey premise of The Outer Space, the latest song cycle to emerge from the pleasantly twisted mind of Ethan Lipton. Lipton's shows are more like high-concept cabaret acts than full-on musicals, consisting as they do of thematically linked songs, all performed by him, strung together by his narration. And if you're on his comic wavelength, as virtually the entire audience was at the performance I attended, you are sure to be delighted. That's a moderately big if, however.

"So that's the deal. It's the old story. A couple buys a spaceship. And in this version, she's happy, and he's sad." As Lipton describes it, the premise is like something out of a Stanley Kubrick picture, or maybe a Flash Gordon serial. As he sings, "So they bought an old spaceship that orbited Mercury/A charming Victorian craft/And they spent all the money they'd borrowed from others/On keeping that spaceship intact." (Lipton's songs are filled with these sort-of rhymes, long accepted in pop music but, in musical theatre, evidence of a certain laziness. A little more lyrical rigor would help his case no end.) The couple is unnamed; she thrives in their new galactic home, he succumbs to "space sadness," defined as "sort of a combination of despair, mono, and a shitty attitude." There is no treatment: "Some days he's able to shake it off with the first cup of coffee. Other times he just spends the whole day stuck inside of his own face."

It's an original premise, to be sure, and the words, delivered in Lipton's trademark hipster rasp -- he is the high priest of a certain flat-affect cool -- can amuse. "The ship they bought is huge, and it's part of a colony of old ships that follow the orbit of the planet Mercury, mostly over the Caloris Basin," he says. "If you don't know that area, it offers one of the prettiest views anywhere, and it is also very far from Earth; about 48 million miles, depending on which way you go." He waits, just for a second or two, before delivering the last clause, giving those words, a party conversation cliché, an absurdist impact that other performers might never achieve. (Noting -- incorrectly -- that a day on Mercury lasts 59 Earth days, Lipton asserts that the pledge drives on Mercury Public Radio are enough to drive you batty.) The problem is, he is rather overfond of this trick, pulling off these little logical U-turns to diminishing effect.

Many of his songs feature lyrics that are both overcomplicated and not terribly precise. Describing the husband's attachment to life on Earth, he sings, "He wants to get it all/I'll take a sidewalk full of huffy puffy doers/He wants to get to it all/I'll take a healthy concentration of seduction, reproduction, and couturiers." Presenting evidence of the wife's thriving outer space existence, he offers, "Friend to every varmint on the block/Chickens, broccoli, they all join her flock/And just when you think they might try to game her/She becomes a neighborly reframer." The husband, holding on to his unhappiness, declares, "But you won't take away my grumpy/He is made of sand and show/His eyes are dry, his flesh is bumpy/And he doesn't like being told to go." I would add that these sound like first drafts if I wasn't so certain that their loose-limbed, all-over-the-place quality isn't exactly what Lipton is trying to achieve.

In any case, his music, a kind of bubbling gumbo of country, blues, and jazz, is easy enough on the ear, so the songs often sound better than they really are; additional aid is provided by the members of his band -- Vito Dieterle on sax and keyboards, Eben Levy on guitar, and Ian M. Riggs on bass -- all of whom add immeasurably to one's enjoyment each time one of them cuts loose with a solo. Even so, Lipton tends not to develop a melodic idea, preferring to bring each number to a crashing halt.

Other plus factors include David Zinn's amusing set design, which wraps the action in a blue curtain decorated with stars and the inflatable rocket, placed just above the stage, which emits fog at certain moments; Zinn also provided the blue NASA-style jumpsuits for the quartet. Ben Stanton's lighting adds pacing and color to each number. Nicholas Pope's sound design is as clear and intelligible as anyone could wish.

It's probably not an entirely fair criticism to say that nothing really happens in The Outer Space, but I doubt that Lipton cares about that; he just wants a framework for his numbers. But, to this pair of Earth eyes, what starts out as an amusingly oddball evening becomes more and more like one of those Mercurian days, as the premise is stretched ever thinner. If you're already a Lipton fan, you'll find this to be an evening of gravity-free fun. If you prefer plots, characters, and tightly structured songs with perfect rhymes, don't blast off with this one. --David Barbour


(14 March 2017)

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