Ideation, by Aaron Loeb, directed by Joe Canuso. Theatre Exile, Philadelphia PA.
Playwright Aaron Loeb pulls off a neat trick with his play Ideation, which premiered in San Francisco in 2013 and is getting a stunning debut in Philadelphia. He satirizes the jargon of corporate-speak consultants while simultaneously producing a thriller about a horrifying, world-threatening catastrophe.
“Ideation” is a real word. (“To ideate” is the verb.) The dictionary meaning is “the process of forming ideas.” Yet it’s an obscure word to everyone outside the unreal domain of hired hands who plot strategies for businesses, finding “efficiencies in production that increase yield.” These are the troubling figures who populate this drama.
A group of three men and one woman gather in a modern office to construct a plan for an unnamed client. Team manager Brock (a supercilious Allen Radway) outlines the task: “First and foremost, due to the secrecy of our assignment, we won’t be using PowerPoint. We want no digital files. All ideation is to be done on the whiteboard and erased.” An office assistant (Harry Watermeier) is banished from the room, even though his daddy is on the board. That’s how secret everything must be.
Masterminding the project with Brock are Ted (the seemingly-folksy Southerner William Zielinski), Sandeep (the highly-educated Delhi-born Alex Hughes) and office manager Hannah (a mature, commanding D’Arcy Dersham). We in the audience are told nothing about the project, although the participants know more. Gradually we learn that it includes components labeled “collection, containment, liquidation, disposal,” and the scale of the problem is said to involve millions of people.
Clearly, the meeting resembles the notorious Wannsee Conference, a 1942 assembly of officials in a villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to coordinate what they called the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” Hannah, Brock, Ted and Sandeep nonchalantly deal with the task as if it’s a normal function of their profession.
The concept is chilling, and the discussions develop with tension — and considerable wit. Loeb labeled his play “a comic thriller” and it certainly is so. The conferees devolve into panic and paranoia as the deadline nears for their report to the company CEO. Hannah clearly is scared of that executive who appears only as a voice on an intercom speaker (one of the Philadelphia theater community’s leading benefactors, Steve Wolfson.)
Dersham is a major find. The transplant from New England brings a range of qualities to Hannah that seem to be an unlikely combination: maturity, sensuality, vulnerability, and fear. All of the men are convincing in their roles.
Lighting designer Robin Stamey supplies a clever touch of flickering the lights whenever the CEO is about to speak. Colin McIlvaine provides the efficient scenery. Katherine Fritz designed the casual corporate attire. Joe Canuso, Exile’s founder, directs the progressive escalation of emotions with a sure hand, steering the play towards an especially exciting climax.