Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's recent review of The Book of Will
The play is told in real time over 90 minutes and centers on a group of corporate planners who have come together in a conference room to strategize a plan for an emergency situation that focuses on containment, liquidation and disposal. However, there is uncertainty that crops up as the group members lay out their plans. Are they there to strategize for the impact of a potential natural disaster where millions of people could be infected by a highly contagious, deadly virus, with their goal being to find a way to save the human race by remediating those exposed by secretly disposing of the bodies without causing mass panic? Or are there other factors at hand and the project is more involved than they have been led to believe?
To say any more about the plot would give away the many shocks and surprises in Loeb's striking script. I spent many years on project planning teams in corporate America and am impressed at how expertly Loeb uses phrases and interactions that are authentic to anyone who has been involved on large scale corporate projects. While the play premiered years before COVID-19 caused mass confusion and uncertainty on a global level, you can't help but imagine that groups of people held similar project planning sessions to address potential issues about COVID-19 when they didn't know how contagious the virus was. When you add in the moments of panic, paranoia, dread and hysteria in the play, many of which are not only similar to the confusion around COVID-19 so many of us had when it first appeared, but also how so many people currently believe we aren't being told the truth about certain things, or worse, believe in conspiracy theories, it makes Ideation a shocking and eerily relevant drama.
Loeb also is clearly making parallels to how groups of people worked on both the 1942 Wannsee Conference, where Berlin officials met to coordinate plans for what we later learned was known as the Final Solution, and the Manhattan Project, which resulted in the bombing of Hiroshima and employed hundreds of thousands of people yet only a few knew of the exact end goal of the project. That makes the play a chilling analogy to these factual past projects especially in how the group members often make light of, and joke about, the project they are working on, even when it, like those other projects, deals with the potential death of millions of people. Loeb's ability to bring humor into the play may seem odd when talking about such heavy topics as death and disposing of millions of bodies, but it lightens the tension in spots while also satirizing the entire group project scenario.
While the five characters in the play are all basic corporate stereotypes, Loeb's dialogue and the concise direction by Greg Lutz keep them from being caricatures. They include the cocky team manager Brock (Phillip Herrington); Ted (Christopher Haines), the southern gentleman who speaks with a slow, folksy drawl while he steamrolls people; manager Hannah (Carrie Ellen Jones), who has to continually remind the men in the group that she's their superior; the highly educated, foreign-born Sandeep (Sebastian Kunnappilly), who starts to question if they are being told the truth behind the project but who is also reminded that he signed a non-disclosure agreement and that if he says anything to others about the project then his work visa will be pulled; and the young intern Scooter (Super Smash), who doesn't quite know how to navigate his way through office politics.
The cast create characters who are commanding and passionate but also vulnerable and frightened by the possibility that there may be some nefarious plot going on behind the project. Watching them spiral out of control as the tension mounts and uncertainty creeps in is both humorous and horrific since we also are just as uncertain as they are as to what exactly is going on. All of the cast members work extremely well under Lutz's direction to create fully flesh out, believable individuals who have worked together for many years and relish the think-tank nature of these projects. With dry erase markers constantly in motion, they pace around the room, take notes, brainstorm, and spout lines about needing to "spitball" ideas and "think outside the box," but they also become concerned when one of the members is "spiraling" or getting "into the weeds." Any audience member who has ever worked on a corporate project plan should greatly appreciate the accuracy in the dialogue and interactions in the script and the realism in the performances.
Adding to the realism is the corporate conference room set design by Haines that is simple but also very effective. Haines' lighting design is fairly bright and static throughout with a few specific touches that add to the eeriness in the play.
Ideation is an intriguing and compelling play that sets the stakes high while also making the audience, like the members of the project, constantly question what is real. iTheatre's production is smartly directed and well cast and will most likely have you talking about the play on your way home from the theatre and thinking about it for days afterwards.
Ideation runs through September 24, 2022, at iTheatre Collaborative with performances downtown at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E Monroe St, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.itheatreaz.org.
Director: Greg Lutz
* Denotes member of Actors' Equity Association