New Rep's "Ideation": Survival of the Specious

Jake Murphy, Matt Ketai, Christine Hamel, Lewis D. Wheeler & Ed Hoopman in "Ideation"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

The presence of a clean whiteboard, often a tool for problem-solving, portends something ominous, a sort of potential moral catastrophe, in Ideation, a play by video game creator Aaron Loeb which premiered off-Broadway in 2016. It's the season opener for New Rep in Watertown, in its Boston-area premiere. The title of course refers to the formation of ideas or concepts, in other words, brainstorming, and that's about all one can disclose without revealing significant spoilers. Despite some fundamental confidentiality issues, though, one may at least describe it as a very dark comedy, as well as a psychological thriller, about a mysterious Project Senna (for an unnamed client) for which a team of strategists for an unnamed company must come up with a solution for a morally ambiguous hypothetical that threatens to tear them asunder. The team consists of a boss named Hannah (Christine Hamel); Sandeep (Matt Ketai), a PhD in Industrial Engineering; Brock (Lewis D. Wheeler) and Ted (Ed Hoopman), both just back from a business trip to Crete; and Scooter (Jake Murphy), an intern working on his MBA, who is to take notes (on paper) and whose father is on the Board of Directors of the company. It's not long before we discover the verbal roller coaster that this play is, often perilously close to (intentionally) riding off the rails.

In the first half of the play, the team's ideating quickly devolves into an ethically disturbing and horrendous psychological game, replete with corporate-speak, with its depiction of vague rules of engagement, conspiracy theories, and various rabbit holes, all percolating in a very terse and tense exercise in dispassionate logic. In the second half of this intermission-less work, matters turn more specious, more superficially plausible; the playwright coined the term “plausiating”, simultaneously plausible and nauseating. It also becomes increasingly funny, once the initial horrific nature of the conundrum is dissected. Thanks to this estimable cast, each seemingly perfect for her or his role, the audience is “in the room where (and as) it happens”, in real time. At one point, the only foreign-born member of the team declares that Americans are “entirely trusting while at the same time being so profoundly paranoid about the wrong things...just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you”. Though the play was written before our recent elections, it surely has relevance and resonance, enhanced by the creative elements including striking Scenic Design by Ryan Bates, carefully chosen Costume Design by Penney Pinette, stark Lighting Design by Bridget K. Doyle and sinister Sound Design by Dewey Dellay. The production is scrupulously directed by Jim Petosa, who notes in the program that we live in times that often require group-think (sometimes with unexpectedly non-benign results).

At one point, a character describes their dilemma as one facing a labyrinth, an interesting aside given their just-completed trip to Crete. Questions arise, some explicitly, some implicitly, about how far one could go to accomplish a greater good, balancing one's personal beliefs with a corporation's aims, and fundamentally whether the end justify the means. It's all about trust (or lack thereof) and is strongly reminiscent of the famous Twilight Zone episode, The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.

The play is a brilliantly clever conceit, at New Rep through September 24th, ruthlessly immoral at times yet hysterically involving and exhausting at others. More could be revealed, but then one might have to kill you.

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