Coworkers Ted (Michael Ray Wisely, left), Sandeep (Jason Kapoor, center) and Hannah (Carrie Paff) find a routine session of ideation turning into something much more complicated…and terrifying in the world premiere of Aaron Loeb’s Ideation, part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox new play program. Below: Members of the team (from left, Wisely, Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips and Ben Euphrat) prepare to face the big boss and make choices that could affect their lives in big ways. Photos by Jordan Puckett
Don’t you love it when a new play starts out and you really like it, then it turns into something else and you like it even more? That’s what happens with Ideation, a world-premiere play by local scribe Aaron Loeb that is part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series, an incubator for new plays.
As new plays go, Ideation is in remarkably good shape primarily because Loeb’s writing is so smart, sharp and full of grounding humor. It also helps that director Josh Costello has done such incisive work with his excellent cast. This is straightforward, bare-bones drama: one simple set (a generic office conference room by Alicia Griffiths), no special effects, consistently good performances and a script that continually surprises.
The 90-minute one-act begins as an engaging look at corporate power dynamics. An important meeting is going to start in minutes, and Hannah (Carrie Paff) is having some trouble with her young, male assistant, Scooter (Ben Euphrat). He’s a hotshot MBA student at Cal, and the fact that his daddy is on the board is amply reflected in his attitude of entitlement. He’d rather play with the big boys in the meeting than get Hannah the coffee she has asked for.
Then the big boys arrive, fresh from a business trip to Crete, which proved to be a triumph in “passing liabilities.” Brock (Mark Anderson Phillips), Ted (Michael Ray Wisely) and Sandeep (Jason Kapoor) are kings in this high-powered consulting firm, and now they turn their attention to a top-secret project called Senna.
Playwright Loeb builds such a believable sense of camaraderie and serious skills/good humor among the players here (excepting young Scooter, or “Scoots” as Brock calls him) that it takes a while for the audience to figure out just what this team is working on. Clues begin to fill the dry-erase board – liquidation facility, containment, cremation – and a heavy sense of “uh oh” begins to pervade the stage. What could they possibly be designing? When, at the start of their work, they agree not to mention the “n-word,” that word turns out to be even worse than you might think.
And that’s the joy of Ideation – a workplace comedy/drama that becomes quite a serious and seriously thrilling thriller (at one point it’s even sexy – how did that happen?). The people on this team are smart cookies, and when they really start to delve into this project and its implications, their sense of paranoia and outright fear becomes quite palpable. Trust in facts and each other begins to crumble, replaced by a realization that they could be involved in something enormously global or as small as a corporate exercise. Loeb has a lot to say about corporations as well and the fact that the only three guiding principles in the world are “country, profit, God.”
By the time Britney Spears’ “Work Bitch” starts booming through the conference room, the sheer delight in the mystery of Ideation is in full flower. Secret relationships are revealed. There are mysterious disappearances and reappearances. And the momentum builds until the inevitable conclusion.
That ending is my only equivocation with Ideation. It ends right where you think it will (which is a perfectly logical and sensible place to end), but I was hoping for one more juicy, head-spinning surprise – that final jolt to cap a thrillingly electric theatrical experience.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Aaron Loeb’s Ideation continues through Dec. 7 as part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox new play program at the Tides Theatre, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20. Call 415l-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.