By Aaron Loeb
Directed by Josh Costello
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
Aaron Loeb’s intriguing “Ideation” – currently playing at 59E59 Theaters – could easily be categorized as a delightful off-beat Drawing Room farce (except the room here is a corporate Board Room) were it not for the play’s underbelly of moral ambiguity, suspicion, mistrust, conspiracy, paranoia, and an extra-marital affair. Coming off a successful business venture in Crete, Brock (Mark Anderson Phillips), Ted (Michael Ray Wisely), and Sandeep (Jason Kapoor) join their boss Hannah (Carrie Paff) and her less than competent assistant Scooter (Ben Euphrat) to initialize plans for a highly secret project that somehow involves “saving the human race.”
The mystery begins when Ted goes to the whiteboard and writes: “Project Senna.” Underneath, “Rules: 1. No PPT 2. Assume the worst 3. No N-Word” He also draws a system diagram: “I.D. -> Collection -> Containment -> Liquidation -> Disposal.” The audience is immediately aware that all that follows – most of which cannot be shared without multiple spoiler alerts – will assuredly be a “bumpy ride” in the guise of a not-so-typical corporate ideation session. Aaron Loeb’s play was originally developed in the Just Theater New Play Lab and the Bay Area Playwright’s Festival and is produced by San Francisco Playhouse which produced the play in 2013. Its revival here as part of 59E59’s 5A Season is an auspicious and fortuitous event in the current climate of national and international ideation scenarios – real and imagined.
What might be threatening humanity and the global community appears to be a virus, one which could wipe out the entire civilization. At least that’s the team’s assumption as they race to pitch their initial proposal to J.D. the corporate head who only appears as a voiceover (Brian Dykstra) and a flicker on a conference phone call. But as the ideation session proceeds, suspicion mounts as the members begin to question whether their methods have disadvantages “on the moral axis, as it were.” What exactly is J.D. asking them to do and is an incurable virus the real target of “Project Senna?” What could merit the extinction and disposal of millions of human beings?
Things change dramatically when Sandeep expresses his concern about Project Senna: “I mean about the camps. I think about… I’ve been thinking/about it all the way from Crete. I believe in what we are/doing and I understand why there should be a plan — must be/a plan like this. I do. But… what if? You know? What if it/were instead for brown guys named Mohammed – foreigners/or… People who look like me. People like me.” Sandeep exits the room leaving his team mates questioning their own safety and longevity.
Sandeep’s apparently paranoid speculation thrusts the collaboration into a tailspin and the closer the group’s deadline to report to J.D. the more fractured the team’s cohesion and mutual trust. What they imagine and what they begin to speculate is the remarkable and powerful story line of Mr. Loeb’s script and the ensemble cast capably brings that story to a chilling and disturbing climax. Director Josh Costello keeps the pace of the piece at the frenetic and horrifying level needed and his creative vision never misses the opportunity to turn the audience’s expectations into a delectable chaotic psychological disarray.
That disarray loses steam briefly about eighty minutes into the performance at no fault of the brilliant cast or the director. Mr. Loeb might consider making a few judicious cuts to keep the action consistent throughout (a much shorter make-out scene between Sandeep and Hannah would be one possibility). Despite this, “Ideation” is a splendid mental exercise in speculation and culpability that keeps the audience guessing from beginning to end.