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‘Ideation’ explores workplace ethics

Journal Correspondent

Christine Hamel, Jake Murphy and Lewis D. Wheeler in “Ideation” at the New Repertory Theatre.

SEPTEMBER 21, 2017 – Could a top-secret Ameri­can corporate project meeting produce a 21st century ‘Final Solution’? In video game designer Aaron Loeb’s striking 2013 corporate office-set thriller “Ideation,” high-level consultants actually speak directly about such potentially questionable considerations as ID’s, containment, liquidation and disposal in dealing with a mysterious unnamed project. More disturbing still, arrogant and initially flip meeting attendee Brock unemotionally refers to such disposal options as cremation and mass graves. At the same time, all of the attendees try to avoid the N-word – here the Third Reich one, not the racist one. New Repertory Theatre and Boston Center for American Performance in a Hub co-premiere are giving Loeb’s provocative and timely if occasionally preachy drama a speed-dial sharp staging at the Arsenal Center for the Arts.

For a scenario that is anything but mundane, “Ideation’s” set-up is disarmingly typical though strikingly designed by Ryan Bates – particular a metaphor-like configuration that may call to mind a web, cat’s cradle or entanglement to different theatergoers. A quartet of consultants – family-devoted Ted, jet set confident Brock, engineering specialist Sandeep and group manager Hannah – gradually come together around a smartly simple conference room table to brainstorm a presentation to be submitted to Hannah’s unseen but occasionally heard superior J.D. At the beginning, Scooter – an ostensibly incompetent assistant chosen through nepotism – briefly writes on a marker board and then erases his wording (though audience members will do well to consider the later implication of this removed notation).

Playwright Aaron Loeb

After Hannah dismisses Scooter for blatant incompetency with regard to the conference meeting – risking the ire of J.D. and Scooter’s V.I.P. father, the foursome really do some serious thinking and theorizing about the content and approach of the upcoming presentation – the title ‘ideation.’ While the actual project has not be revealed, they speculate that there could be a worldwide epidemic or other widespread crisis in which their plan might blur the line between moral integrity and complicity in a genocide. When clearly good friends Ted and Brock (Ted bromantically tells Brock at one point that he could kiss him) inject some levity into the group’s conversation, Sandeep counsels that they should not joke on an assignment like this. Brock quickly counters that the group’s efforts might turn out to be of benefit to rescue teams.

Audience members, particularly those who brainstorm at work, may find themselves identifying with various consultants as they exchange views about the nature of the project and the company requesting information. In moments of increasing suspicion, they wonder if they have been given honest information to work with and if the company is one with a high moral standard. Fears expressed include the possibility that their ideas will be used to design death camps and uncertainty whether Jews might be singled out again. Trust issues arise, and tensions increase. Loeb is clearly expert at developing the suspense elements here – particularly when Sandeep, who involved in an affair with Hannah, disappears. Also look for the return of Scooter and some interesting surprises in the later going.

Loeb’s characters here may often seem more representative types than fully developed characters. Still, a stellar cast does its best, under Petosa’s smooth guidance, to make them compelling. Christine Hamel finds Hannah’s vulnerability – in part as the only woman in the group – as well as her leadership strengths. Lewis Wheeler combines Brock’s sarcasm, egotism and volatility. Ed Hoopman and Wheeler have the right engaging ease as chums, and the former displays convincing commitment in ongoing references to his family. Matt Ketai captures Sandeep’s moments of conscience, his concern about ethnically diverse people and his love for Hannah. Jake Murphy, making the most of Scooter’s nonchalance and elusiveness, is a standout.

Whether the play’s group wins the apparent competition or not, Loeb’s thoughtful play – expertly premiered at the Arsenal Center – will likely have audiences giving strong consideration to the degree of moral and ethical values in their own personal and professional lives.

“Ideation,” New Repertory Theatre and Boston Center for American Performance, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, through October 8. 617-923-8487 or newrep.org.

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