“Vision holder”; “knowledge set”; “optimization”; “liquidation”: the sterile, sterilizing corporate-speak of modern business pervades Aaron Loeb’s darkly comic contemporary play IDEATION, now in production at Theatre Exile’s temporary home at the Latvian Society.
Language can hide many sins. Director Joe Canuso’s first-rate cast run through the obfuscating language with natural ease. Three management consultants (Alex Hughes, Allen Radway, and William Zielinski) have returned from assignment abroad to work on a secret new project with team leader Hannah (D’Arcy Dersham) and rookie upstart Scooter (Harry Watermeier). Their jargon and jokes mask the deadly nature of their ideation session: designing a “liquidation facility” for millions of people infected by a potential virus and coming up with a good solution for “what to do with all the bodies.”
The ribbing and easy rapport with which the group tackle the serious project doesn’t quite ring true in the opening section, but it sets up a compelling, penetrating final two-thirds. Here, the team use the brainstorming tools of management consulting to delve into the implications of their task: are they saving the world or serving as unwitting cogs in a holocaustal conspiracy? After all, “this has to be scalable.”
Canuso and the cast bring convincing individuality to the characters, so we grow to care about their ethical struggles, happily following Loeb’s play as it gets into the weeds with endless scenarios etched upon the whiteboard walls. (Set designer Colin McIlvaine creates a convincing meeting room, complete with carpet tile and central speaker phone.)
Southerner Ted (Zielinski) wants to do his job and get to his daughter’s soccer game; sharp-tongued Brock (Radway) insists on exploring every logical possibility; Hannah and Sandeep (Hughes) demonstrate the moral ambiguities of human action on any scale. And who is that Scooter kid anyway? Loeb leaves many questions satisfyingly up in the air.
IDEATION premiered in San Francisco in 2013, but one senses this is already a different, and better, play in the world of 2017. “Assume the worst,” says one of the few lines left etched upon the walls. In these times, it’s hard not to.
[Theatre Exile at the Latvian Society of Philadelphia, 531 N. 7th Street] October 12-November 5, 2017; theatreexile.org