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The Outer Space

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 8, 2017


Ethan Lipton
Photo by Joan Marcus

The Outer Space, the new concert-musical by Ethan Lipton that just opened at Joe's Pub, turns on a familiar axiom: "Things are the same all over." Regardless of whether you're on Earth or on a colony of spaceships orbiting Mercury, you're going to face all the same problems: professional, domestic, emotional. And, be you down here or up there, you're going to have to deal with them (or not deal with them) in the same way. Humans don't change simply because their surroundings do.

If you need to be told this, then you're the ideal audience for this show, which has been directed by Leigh Silverman. Lipton makes sure this point is unavoidable in spinning a tale of a husband and a wife who buy a "jalopy" and join a group of settlers around Mercury in hopes to "get away from it all": In other words, "noise, violence, oppression, the grind, rudeness, tourism, traffic, trash, smelly buses, corporate greed, cultural homogenization, economic marginalization, pollution, overcrowded schools, overpriced rents, overhyped pastries, and busker rock." But they gradually discover that by trying to get away from it all, they've actually gotten away from nothing.

The husband develops a condition called "space sadness," and longs to return home, while the wife adores and thrives in her new environment. There are constant squabbles about their precarious economic situation ("While many things are cheaper in space—ice cream, for example, or bowling—it's also true that owning a spaceship is like owning a 2,000-square-foot black hole; every dollar you make disappears before it arrives"). And there are all the usual difficulties inherent with completing necessary chores and dealing with neighbors. Plus, when getting through every day is a struggle, it's not that easy to survive somewhere like Mercury, where each one is the equivalent of 59 back on Earth.

It doesn't take the despondent husband long to realize that he faces the very real choice of having to find a way to live with his depression, or return back to where things are probably worse. Many in the audience these days can probably relate to both impulses, and, in the closest thing to a twist Lipton applies to his formula, it turns out there's a specific reason the departure from mankind's home planet looked so attractive in the first place—and why, even 48 million miles away, life is still a lot harder than it should be.

This is injected via a wry aside lasting only a few seconds, and coming very late, but it imparts a sense of energy and originality that The Outer Space otherwise lacks. Like his previous, extraordinarily similar work No Place to Go, about an unremarkable schlub who must decide whether to relocate with his job to Mars, the show is an attempt to recast Everyman issues in sparkling new terms. In our darkest moments, isn't this the solution most of us land upon, if only half-seriously or for a half-second max? That's the direction in which Lipton is trying to head, but too much of what he does is setting our troubles—exactly our troubles—against a different backdrop without much adaptation. Since the existence he describes clearly isn't, and cannot be, ours, more often than not the result feels fake and forced.

In isolated instances of dialogue, Lipton captures the majestic scope that separates that unknown environment from ours. "Space is 10 billion mysteries just waiting to be solved," he says, but the husband's "relationship to it is pretty superficial. Like the ex-boyfriend of a co-worker at the wedding of a cousin, he’s glad to see it; he wants to give it a squeeze on the shoulder and find out how it’s doing… and then he starts looking around for a drink and thinking about getting back to his life." Relating something we can't imagine to something we can is one thing, but renaming scrubbing the floors to scrubbing the air, or mocking Mercury Public Radio's never-ending pledge drive, is constricting our viewpoint, not expanding it, and even across a relatively brief 80 minutes, that gets tiring.

The songs, which Lipton composed with Vito Dieterle, Eben Levy, and Ian M. Riggs (who play in the onstage band) could elevate things, but they're constructed around the same (you should forgive the pun) down-to-Earth philosophy. "You can have my tuna sammy / You can have my heart and soul / and I will bring you PB & jammy / Until we both grow tired and old," runs one lyric; "Which came first, the chicken or the pulled pork? / And does it really matter / If you got good hot sauce?" goes another. This doesn't play as the seemingly intended ironic contrast, but rather yet another reinforcement of the message Lipton is already trying to present. This is exacerbated by the light, genial country flair of the music, and the fact that the numbers are repetitively structured and staged. (There is no billed choreographer. There should be.)

As with No Place to Go, the prevailing joke seems to be that our "hero" is someone around whom such an evening should not be structured, a notion that Lipton's shrugging stage persona richly contributes to. But the earlier show, about a conflicted drone of a person, bore it better; by supplying an epic undercurrent, however faint, Lipton ups the stakes, but can't meet them by himself. The set (a swath of sci-fi silliness by David Zinn), the costumes (space suits, also from Zinn), and the star-struck lighting (by Ben Stanton) suggest that universe, but they, despite Silverman's gentle nudging, aren't enough to bring you there.

No, you're stuck on Earth, and, unless you can front the exorbitant cost of a SpaceX jaunt, are confined to viewing the stars from afar. Not that it matters, right? You're just as well off, even if you're not well off. The Outer Space may not say much you haven't heard, but it's incisively salient on this point: "Wherever you go... money."


The Outer Space
Through April 9
Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.publictheater.org


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