Aaron Loeb’s 2013 play Ideation, produced by Theatre Exile, unfolds in real time, and the immediate stakes for four management consultants are clear. They have 90 minutes to deliver their proposal for “Project Senna” to JD, their boss. Get to work!
Merriam-Webster says that ideation means “the capacity for or the act of forming or entertaining ideas,” but its typical use has darker shadings, like “suicidal ideation.” Loeb’s characters use it as corporate jargon, as in “We’re ideating.”
The meeting starts with workplace shenanigans: Scooter (Harry Watermeier) is an apparently incompetent intern who hilariously fails boss Hannah (D’Arcy Dersham). “Don’t call me ‘Dude,’” she has to tell the kid, whose daddy is on the board. Brock (Allen Radway), Sandeep (Alex Hughes), and Ted (William Zielinski) enter exultant in blue suits and sunglasses (costumes by Katherine Fritz), singing “The Boys Are Back in Town.” They’ve just returned from a successful job in Crete which depended on their clients understanding that, as Brock brags, “We know how to pass liabilities down the line.”
They plunge into their new task, scribbling ideas with markers on the shiny whiteboard walls of their sterile conference room (appropriately cold scenic design by Colin McIlvaine, lit with corporate intensity by Robin Stamey). No PowerPoint, Hannah instructs, no computer or internet trail, just handwritten notes and memory so there’s no record — and no use of the “N-word,” which may not be what we first assume.
Just as we’re enjoying their arch corporatespeak, childish infighting, and boys’ club humor, disturbing ideas emerge. Brock asks, “What are we going to do with all the bodies?”
Speculation soars from there, as the team’s ideas for safe and discreet disposal after some sort of disaster (disease, war, genocide? They don’t know!) becomes a frank discussion about ‘liquidation facilities,” “toxic body sludge,” and the banal yet creepy “disadvantages on the moral axis.” They realize, “We only know what we know.”
Are teams at other companies assigned to this task? Is body removal just one small part of a much bigger operation?
Then an issue arises that rips the team apart: Could this be a loyalty test? Could team members be working for whoever’s pulling the strings? Who can we trust? They threaten to turn on one another while time runs out. Can they pull together, and if so, to what end?
An Exile play
Joe Canuso’s cast revels in the rat-a-tat dialogue, though they sometimes slow it down by thinking too much, which comes across as line-groping. Overall, they ride this wild play with verve and skill. Dersham excels as the sole woman, the “grown-up in the room” who answers to unseen JD (Steve Wolfson, recorded). The friendship between Brock, Sandeep, and Ted is close yet competitive, compelling intense emotional bursts from all three actors as their corporate confidence crumbles. Watermeier’s Scooter seems a privileged dolt, but has dangerous secrets.
This script feels written for Theatre Exile, which favors modern plays with blunt language, violence, and cutting-edge issues. It’s a sharp beginning for their season in exile at the Latvian Society while their South Philly home is rebuilt. Ideation contemplates how horrible things can be accomplished by an apparently advanced people, and its inconclusive conclusion perfectly challenges us to wonder.