Ideation, directed by Josh Costello and currently at 59E59 Theaters, is a taut, ironic thriller set in a generic office conference room with a large oval table and accompanying chairs. The set and situation appear lackluster enough. A company has been hired to solve an intricate problem and capable team members with compatible skill sets have been commissioned to present viable, acute solutions. However, with superb, on-point acting by the ensemble, playwright Aaron Loeb’s skilled craftsmanship, and Costello’s mindful and adroit direction, the situation is anything but what it seems.
Indeed, the setting’s apparent banality is a crucial focal point for the tension and themes. It increases the level of anxiety we feel as the events unfold in this “harmless” but actually dangerous place. The setting elucidates a chilling, overarching theme: During problem-solving sessions in typical conference rooms like these in businesses around the world, the fate of millions may be designated with the stroke of a marker on a whiteboard.
We note the eerie undercurrents after Loeb presents the exposition and before the team’s initial gruesome brainstorming discussion. Team Leader Brock fires the feckless, incompetent intern Skooter (an excellent turn by Ben Euphrat), who is related to their boss. Brock doesn’t want Skooter to be a part of their discussions or even to take notes. We assume that this is typical office politics and ego grandstanding, but Loeb ingeniously flips his plot and careens its development near a cliff as we eventually discover that the conflict may not be what we were led to believe. Perhaps inherent in the unraveling mystery is the skewed intention of their boss, the cryptic JD. What is this assignment they are working on? Is it what JD says it is, or something else?
The playwright cleverly reveals the situation, the solution they are working on, and JD’s true intention by stages in a skillfully, logically layered plot. One of the sardonic ironies is how the team members – Team Leader Brock, Civil Engineer Ted, Sandeep whose Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering has helped to qualify him as an expert, and their immediate boss Hannah – casually discuss macabre elements of their proposals that strangely sound like some Nazi conspiracy to destroy a segment of the population. This is the abysmal weight of humanity at its worst. However, as the brainstorming session escalates, the assignment is clarified and what appeared to be horrific turns out to be beneficial to humanity. We breathe a sigh of relief, perhaps too soon.
Through exceptional performances by Carrie Paff as Hannah, Mark Anderson Phillips as Brock, Michael Ray Wisely as Ted, and Jason Kapoor as Sandeep, the characters wrangle with the grotesque issues. The pressure is on to agree on a plan and deliver it to JD within 90 minutes, the length of the play. The irony is not lost on us that this is occurring in live time (like ‘night, Mother or TV’s 24). The pressure of time is a clever device. Because of it, we empathize with the characters and experience their anxiety as time encroaches and they embroil themselves in arguments that remain unresolved. Of course the stakes are raised and an efficacious plan grows increasingly elusive as they are derailed by one another in an emotional morass. Funny? Yes. All too familiar? Ironically so.
As Loeb appears to have manifested all the elements, he injects another plot twist, and the discussion focuses on the sinister underlying mandate. Fear becomes the monster in the room no one deals with. They feed the monster, it augments, then it overwhelms. They believe that JD’s purpose may end in their own destruction, and come to distrust each other and suspect one or more of them is in collusion with JD. Or is it something actually more benign than that? Or worse?
Because of Loeb’s finely written characterizations and Costello’s wise and temperate direction, the actors’ stunning emotional performances live in real time and manipulate our emotions. Many wonderful elements pepper this complex production and foreshadow the devastating conclusion, which some may disagree with. But Loeb’s well-drawn characterizations, each singular, enhanced with studied distinction by the actors’ portrayals, bring this likely-unlikely, real-surreal office dynamic office to life.
One of the most relevant of the themes highlighted is that the more ambitious and incisive the participants in a problem-solving session, the more likely they will encounter obstacles raised by their brilliance as they note myriad possibilities. Indeed, if the right circumstances develop under time constraints, such individuals may back themselves into a corner so that no active decisions are made and all become mentally paralyzed, Hamlet-like.
Ideation is a must-see production, its concept well-thought-out and executed to perfection by the sustained efforts of the cast, creative team and director. The production unfolds seamlessly, step by step, with sardonic humor, suspense, and a realism that the actors vibrate with and make us experience to the very end. You can catch it at 59E59 Theaters until April 17.