With Ideation, playwright Aaron Loeb built a theatrical puzzle room: He stuck a handful of characters into an ambiguous but increasingly scary situation, and then strained to pull off an impactful conclusion in just one act with no intermission. Gremlin Theatre's new production of the 2013 play intrigues and often entertains, although it's disappointing that Loeb ultimately forsook substance for style.
In director Brian Balcom's production, set designer Carl Schoenborn has creditably transformed the Gremlin's thrust stage into a generic conference room. As the play opens, a team of hotshot management consultants gather for a brainstorming session — or, in corporate jargon, an "ideation" — regarding a new top-secret project.
The reason for the secrecy soon becomes apparent, even if little else does. The consultants have been asked to work on a project that sounds ethically unconscionable. Their unseen boss has explained how the project will serve the greater good, but the consultants have no way of verifying that he's telling the truth. Are they being asked to help save the world as we know it, or to help end it? Or, has the whole assignment been faked as a sadistic way to find out how their Myers-Briggs types interact under pressure?
Loeb strings us along, extending the characters' uncertainty as the tension continues to ratchet ever higher. Balcom's cast is strong; particularly Peter Christian Hansen as the obnoxiously confident Brock, and Katherine Kupiecki as the team's overly patient corporate manager Hannah. There's also veteran problem-solver Ted (Brian P. Joyce), Ivy-laureled engineer Sandeep (Nikhil Pandey), and entitled neophyte Scooter (Ben Shaw).
The script explicitly raises questions about ordinary citizens' complicity in moral atrocities, but Loeb consistently veers away from any kind of substantive exploration of those questions. Instead, the team's appalling assignment becomes essentially a giant MacGuffin as the play devolves into interpersonal paranoia.
If the consultants refuse to take their assignment, will the knowledge of an intra-office affair influence their boss' actions? Was Scooter's hire really a function of nepotism as it seems, or was it something more calculated? Is a mysterious black limo driven by stealthy assassins waiting to murder anyone whose resolve wavers...or is it just an Uber?
Loeb is illustrating how easily we can be manipulated by leaders willing to exploit our vulnerabilities and pit us against each other, but his writing isn't quite artful enough to reconcile the gaping horror of the team's assignment with the relatively mundane considerations that fuel most of the onstage drama. The unsatisfying and, in its way, all too obvious ending doesn't add a thing.
That said, Ideation isn't the kind of show you encounter very often outside of a Fringe setting, and its brittle energy will appeal to audiences who like a twisted, ticking-clock thriller: the Keyzer Söze namedrop is entirely on-the-nose. If you don't recognize that name, watch The Usual Suspects before you Google it.
IF YOU GO:
Through July 29