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Theatre in Review: Ideation (San Francisco Playhouse/59E59)

Michael Ray Wisely, Carrie Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips. Photo: Carol Rosegg

The idea of a thriller about management consultants may seem oxymoronic, but Aaron Loeb, a playwright with an original mind and a barbed appreciation of the human capacity for deception and betrayal, turns a meeting of professional experts prepping a presentation into a frequently hilarious excursion into ever-mounting paranoia. This is a world in which the highest term of praise is "team player," yet, by the end, the room is so rife with everyone's suspicions -- of their project, of their superiors, and, most of all, of each other -- that they are paralyzed, unsure of their next move. Rarely have boardroom politics seemed so perilous.

The characters are employees of a firm such as Accenture who have 90 minutes to pull together their ideas on designing a most peculiar system: How best to quarantine, and later dispose of, people infected with a weaponized virus designed to wipe out humanity. They all treat their assignment with blackly comic detachment -- there is a spirited argument about whether "crematoriums" or "crematoria" is the correct plural form -- largely because it is a theoretical response to an event so unlikely that it verges on science fiction. Such details as cargo containers, acid, and burial at sea are treated as so many facets of an amusing, if unsettling, game.

Adding to the piquancy of the situation is a number of underlying tensions: Brock, the most acerbic of the group, goads Hannah, the team's facilitator, into firing Scooter, her worthless assistant. This allows Carrie Paff, as Hannah, one of the play's more delectable moments, delivering the standard business-speak clichés to Scooter ("I take no pleasure in this. It was a difficult decision and one I assure you I spent a great deal of time on") while clearly relishing every single word. Still, Scooter owed his job to his status as the son of a company board member, putting Hannah at risk with upper management. Even dicier is the fact that Hannah, who is married, is carrying on a hot affair with Sandeep, the junior member of the team, who is in the US on a work visa sponsored by the company.

It is Sandeep who first raises the issue that eventually sends the meeting into a radical state of destabilization: Since the idea of a killer virus is so far-fetched, what if there is another purpose altogether and they are unwittingly designing a program to dispatch "brown guys named Mohammed -- foreigners...or people who look like me. People like me?" Later, Brock makes another unsettling point: "If there's only one team on earth working on this problem, it's unlikely to be us." Are they unknowingly competing against other teams? Are they only working on one part of a larger plan? They assume at first that this project is being designed for the US government, but could other, foreign entities be involved? Other incidents add to the tension: Hannah has a murkily threatening phone conversation with J. D., who then becomes impossible to reach. One member of the team leaves for a few minutes, then disappears altogether. And Scooter returns, ostensibly to ask for his job back, but with surprising insight into what is really happening.

The increasingly paranoiac fun and games are accompanied by crackling dialogue that often shreds the clichés of the business world. Ted, the member of the team most committed to staying on track, informs the ultracompetitive Brock, "You're guilty of excessive winning. You're going to die at 42 of an infarction." Brock, in response to an assertion by Ted, a southerner, snaps, "Yes, you would be. Primarily because your Uncle Billie Joe is also your pappy. But also because you're none too bright." In response to Brock's insistence that another, bigger company must be involved, Ted snaps, "Guys, Disney would not assign Imagineers to design a death camp!" Sandeep says Americans "are so entirely trusting while at the same time being so profoundly paranoid about the wrong things. You think every little thing will kill you, every new group is out to get you, and meanwhile you allow yourself to be poisoned -- in your food, in your water, and in your information....At least in India, we know everything we are told is a lie."

Under Josh Costello's spring-loaded direction, a nimble and committed cast makes a possibly contrived situation feel all too real. Paff slings insults with the best of them but she also has a couple of hilariously telling moments of silence, when she realizes that everyone knows about her extramarital activities and, later, when she hurriedly puts down a coffee cup with contents that she suddenly doesn't trust. Mark Anderson Phillips' Brock begins in total cynical self-assurance and later spins out doomsday scenarios with equal zest. Michael Ray Wisely's attempts at being the voice of reason are increasingly, amusingly futile, leading him to dyspeptic outburst. Jason Kapoor has strong chemistry with Paff, lending credence to their affair, and he also lays out the initial troublemaking argument with enormous élan. Ben Euphrat's Scooter is every executive's nightmare of a terrible assistant.

Also, Bill English's boardroom set is a photorealistic copy of the real thing. Abra Berman's costumes are accurate representations of the way management consultants dress, yet with tiny, but important, distinctions that mark each character. Gertjan Houben's lighting makes subtle shifts that help ratchet up the tension. Theodore J. H. Hulsker's sound design is most effective when transmitting the phone calls from J.D., who is voiced by Brian Dykstra.

Ideation reaches its climax in a moment of ambiguity that should be frustrating for the audience but somehow feels right; having taken his characters into the realm of the unthinkable, Loeb is probably correct not to try to explain it all away. Instead, he leaves us with a tense and funny comedy thriller that accurately mirrors the conspiracy-minded thinking that informs too much of modern life. It's worth seeing, even if it disrupts your sleep a bit. -- David Barbour

(18 March 2016)

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