Produced by: SF Playhouse
Featuring: Carrie Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips, Michael Ray Wisely, Ben Eupphrat and Jason Kapoor
Directed by: Josh Costello
When: September 23 through November 8, 2014
Where: SF Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco, California
Tickets: $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org
for a bumpy ride
"Ideation" takes the old adage regarding the month of March and tilts it on its head: This play comes in like a lamb and goes out like a lion.
As such, prepare to be thoroughly exhausted and possibly relieved when the lights come up at the end of this nonstop, 90-minute, tilt-a-whirl of a nail-biter though to be honest, it's only in the play’s abrupt denouement that the theater’s lights ever go down in this blistering, castle-built-on-sand fable set in the corporate workplace; but, more on that later.
For good or ill, "Ideation," which kicked off San Francisco Playhouse's 12th season and runs through Nov. 8, is a roller-coaster thrill ride that often seems about to fly off the tracks. It's a tale rooted in the plight of The Rat Race and steeped in dark comedy, even to the point of gallows humor (a la Mel Brooks' "Springtime for Hitler"). There's a zany, comic heft to the whole proceedings that reaches a brilliant crescendo in an off-the-cuff, bonkers dance number midway through the play. However, just as many jabs take aim at the adrenal gland as the funny bone.
The aforementioned "ill" at the start of the previous paragraph concerns the action so well mirroring the title (which means "having ideas"). The play is chiefly held together by scatterbrained notions, giving a plot line little room to wiggle through, so that by the end, it feels a bit like we’ve awoken from a dream, remembering snippets, but nothing to string the thoughts together. Which may be the point. Perception vs. reality and all.
"Ideation" regards a group of problem-solvers at an unnamed multinational firm tasked with solving a problem that carries possibly catastrophic ethical ramifications: how to get rid of bodies during a viral epidemic [one more serious than our current Ebola scare]. The play starts off simply enough even a tad tediously, like we are witnessing a random, inconsequential day at the office, a boardroom filled with aimless banter.
Which is something this playwright knows a thing or two about.
Aaron Loeb, an award-winning playwright whose previous plays ("First Person Shooter," "Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party") also premiered at SF Playhouse, has a separate career in the video game industry, where he's a 20-year vet. He's a senior vice president at Kabam and was previously a VP at Electronic Arts.
What Loeb brings from that world to the stage is an intensity and an analytical way of looking at workplace discourse and an ability to replicate it authentically, dispassionately, down to the rhythms of speech. He also brings the mundanity, the idiosyncrasies that flavor the corporate workplace and make it a repository of creativity, but also of discord even to dysfunction, as wonderfully demonstrated here, under the direction of Josh Costello.
And that's the "good." All six players are brilliant, seasoned actors, most of whom are reprising their roles from the play's original, three-week, sold-out run last year. "Ideation" was part of SF Playhouse's Sandbox Series, which caters to experimental and/or frugal works. It also won the playwright and the playhouse their first William Glickman Award, a coveted honor bestowed each year by a panel of Bay Area theater critics.
The actors, particularly Mark Anderson Phillips (who also starred in "Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party") as the childish Brock bent on "excessive winning," attack their roles with gusto and the audience just has to hang on for the ride. "Ideation" is dialogue-heavy and finger-snap quick, at times reminiscent of David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross," which also dealt with workplace conspiracies and the survival of the fittest. Yet, the characters go beyond this to flirt with something more sinister, a la Jean Paul Sartre's "No Exit," wherein "hell is other people." Loeb in “Ideation” might be trying to tell us that modern society is an illusion.
It's the green card-bearing Sandeep (Jason Kappor) who first derails the group from the task, after they have begun to work at solving the client's problem, which they will, in 90 minutes, have to abridge for their boss, the faceless, god-like J.T. It's a clever bit of stage trickery that these boardroom minions are seen looking slightly upward when J.T. is speaking via an unseen video screen higher than eye level similar to how one might gaze up at the visage of Jesus Christ on the cross in church. Sandeep, after some internal conflict, wonders aloud: Is the client against us? Is this a test? (Is anything real?)
Psychotic behavior ensues as, one by one, the characters fall down the rabbit hole or are whipped up out of Kansas, depending on your take.
"It's Jeffrey Dahmer on a national scale," blurts team leader Hannah (Carrie Paff) at one point, of the possible ramifications of their task.
"We are just like the truck drivers at [a death] camp," mutters Sandeep, at another.
Eventually, Sandeep tries to bring the conversation back around, touching off one of many issues raised in "Ideation," in a mini-soliloquy, that of the prevalence of misinformation in the media:
"You [Americans] are so entirely trusting, but so paranoid about the wrong things," he says, using the example of consumers blindly trusting that their food is safe, and concluding with, "At least in India, we know everything is a lie."
Which brings us back to the auditorium lights staying on the whole time. The stark radiance of the oppressive boardroom that takes up the entire stage, already glaring from its own hot lamps, carries even more tension, given the lack of separation between audience and players. It's a sparse, clinical design by Bill English, equal parts homage to Steve Jobs, Stanley Kubrick, and the American penal system.
And by the time the characters have torn J.T. off his pedestal, started to question each other's motives and even to fear for their lives, the whole runaway train slams into a wall, and the audience is left to pick up the pieces, for good or ill. (We heard a few gasps in the audience on opening night on that Mack-truck ending.)
Email Kevin Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright Kevin Kelly.