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