IDEATION

ideation

Written by Aaron Loeb

Directed by Josh Costello

Merriam-Webster defines the word ideation as “the capacity for or the act of forming or entertaining ideas”. Tellingly, the first example given is “suicidal ideation”. Even lexicographers, it appears, are wary of the human mind’s capacity for manufacturing toxic materials. In Aaron Loeb’s mordant take on corporate communication, a process that begins as problem-solving quickly descends into an exercise in collective hysteria. Though not all of IDEATION works, its desperate characters are creepily fun to watch as they unwittingly slip their necks into self-imposed mental nooses.

Hannah (Carrie Paff) is an executive at a faceless multinational firm.  As she prepares for an important brainstorming session, she receives little help from her lackadaisical young assistant Scooter (Ben Euphrat). Like a stereotypical millennial, Scooter completes exactly none of the tasks Hannah has given him, yet he still feels entitled to ask questions of senior employees Brock (Mark Anderson Phillips), Ted (Michael Ray Wisely) and Sandeep (Jason Kapoor) as if they were his peers. Firing the lad, however, proves problematic, as his father is tight with the company’s CEO (voiced by Brian Dykstra). This is only one of many challenges faced by Hannah and her team, especially as they begin to suspect there’s more to Scooter – and to the pretty much everything else in the company’s culture- than meets the eye.

For starters, the project to which they’re assigned is hardly business as usual. They are tasked with developing  a disposal system for hundreds of people infected with a mysterious virus: in other words, they’re engineering a mass murder. Euphemisms abound as the team members try to reduce this atrocity to a simple logistical challenge. But before long, questions arise. Are there other teams working on this? Is information being withheld? Is there some dark “vision holder” pulling the strings? Is the office bugged? Speculations metastasize, and trust between the co-workers dissolves. When Sandeep, whose immigration status is shaky, doesn’t return from a break,  it looks as if there may indeed be some nefarious forces at work. Still the work must continue.

Much of the plays’s action hinges on a clever satirical conceit. These corporate lackeys are so eager to impress their higher-ups that they don’t balk at evil. But the characters’ lack of  umbrage, at first, lowers the dramatic stakes. With no moral fabric to unravel, they can only progress from awful to horrible. The tension picks up again as the gang begins to wonder if the whole campaign is just an elaborate ruse designed by the boss to test the their efficiency. Perhaps the ideators do have consciences, after all,  if they’re praying that the grisly task at hand is only make-believe. The play also sports a compelling subplot in which Hannah, though married,  can’t resist continuing her affair with Sandeep. Despite the energy of these plot elements, though, IDEATION is overlong. Watching anxious workers literally run around in circles trying to out-second-guess one another wears thin after a while. Loeb has a keen ear for the empty jargon and forced chumminess of boardroom life, but the same provocative premise and real-time framework would be better served in a leaner, one act edition.

Performance-wise, however, IDEATION is solid and imaginative. The well-cast ensemble and director Josh Costello have enjoyed a successful run at the San Francisco Playhouse, and the experience shows in the production’s taut timing and committed performances. Clearly the city by the bay has a remarkable talent pool, and more frequent visits to New York would certainly be welcome.

IDEATION continues through April 17, 2016 at 59E59 Theaters 59 East 59th Street New York, New York, Between Park & Madison. Tickets:  http://www.59e59.org/boxoffice.php

 

 

DEAD DOG PARK

ddpark

Written by Barry Malawer

Directed by Eric Tucker

Like John Patrick Shanley’s DOUBT, Barry Malawer’s tough, unflinching drama doesn’t provide any easy answers. The audience must decide for itself what really happened during the play’s pivotal event, and who should bear the guilt.

NYPD officer Rob McDonald (Tom O’Keefe), feels his world turning upside down. He is accused of pushing a teenager out the window of an abandoned building in Washington Heights. Tyler Chapin (offstage) and his friend were throwing rocks at Rob and his partner Ricky (Migs Govea). The kids ran, the two cops gave chase, and in a confusing instant the irreversible incident occurred.  Thankfully, the child, though injured, survived the fall. Even so, Rob will face jail time and public disgrace if he’s found guilty. There were no firearms discharged, no chokeholds or batons used, not even any witnesses. So it really comes down to Rob’s word against Tyler’s. Rob maintains his innocence, but the jury isn’t so easily convinced. Attorney John Jones (Ryan Quinn) masterfully spins the narrative: yet another white cop brutalizing an unarmed black teen. Tyler’s mom Sharonne (Eboni Flowers) is more overwhelmed than indignant. She’d like to see justice done, but most importantly she just wants her son to be okay. As an activist, Jones of course is right: the news cycle abounds with stories of unarmed males – often minors and nearly always black – being killed or injured by police. Something must be done about it. But should Rob be made to pay for society’s problems? As the officer’s ugly history is aired during the trial, his wife Angela (Susannah Millonzi) is tortured by doubts and the bond between them is tested. Eventually Rob himself  has heard the official story so many times, he can no longer rely even on his own memory. What happened in that split second will haunt him for the rest of his life.

There are no courtroom cliches here, no homilies designed to prick the conscience of the audience. Instead, Malawer humanizes his characters by showing their ambiguities. Jones may be true crusader for civil rights, or just a cunning careerist looking for a high-profile win.  Sharrone may be seeking just retribution, or greedily eying a big settlement. Either way, they are all, like Rob, trying to survive, to cope, to find some way to move forward. Under Eric Tucker’s sensitive direction, the ensemble skillfully embodies these compelling contradictions, and navigates the growing weariness and resignation of the characters as they years wear on. John McDermott’s sets, Whitney Locher’s costume design and Joyce Liao’s lighting combine to create a dehumanizing landscape of police stations, courtrooms and prison cells.

As affecting as all this is, however, there is room in DEAD DOG PARK for further development. We only meet the adult Tyler (Jude Tibeau) in a fantasy sequence, and little is revealed about the police culture that keeps putting people like Rob out on the street. Still less is illuminated about the denizens of Dead Dog Park (a real neighborhood in upper Manhattan). Is it a crime-ridden slum in which clashes with law enforcement are commonplace? Or do the Chapins typify the proud working class families who struggle to maintain the integrity of their neighborhoods in the midst of New York’s tsunami of gentrification?  Incidents of the kind depicted here don’t happen in a vacuum. And though Malawer has done a remarkable job of dramatizing the repercussions of a tragic turn of events, his story could be even more resonant still if he put the same energy into examining its causes.

DEAD DOG PARK continues through March 6 at 59E59 Theaters 59 East 59th Street New York, New York, Tickets:  http://www.59e59.org/boxoffice.php