Theater Review: Faux-Darkness — New Rep’s “Ideation”

Playwright Aaron Loeb is spot-on when writing about the corporate world where loyalty is maintained through non-disclosure agreements.

Ideation by Aaron Loeb. Directed by Jim Petosa. Presented by New Repertory Theatre and Boston Center for American Performance at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA. Through September 24.

L-R: Christine Hamel, Jake Murphy, and Lewis D. Wheeler in the New Rep production of "Ideation." Photo: Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures.

L-R: Christine Hamel, Jake Murphy, and Lewis D. Wheeler in the New Rep production of “Ideation.” Photo: Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures.

By Ian Thal

In a management consulting firm’s conference room, Scooter (Jake Murphy) an intern (and son of one of the firm’s directors) fiddles about, plays with his security badge, and spins on one of the chairs. He is too excited to be at a high level meeting, as his supervisor, Hannah (Christine Hamel) observes, to prepare for the corporate action to come.

Straight off a flight from Crete, where they were restructuring the island’s transit system, arrive the firm’s senior team: Brock (Lewis D. Wheeler), Ted (Ed Hoopman), and Sandeep (Matt Ketai). J.D., the off-stage CEO, has called them home to work on “Senna,” a project so secretive that they are instructed to make no digital records. They are only to use their own memories and Scooter’s handwritten notes.

The conversion turns out to be about a hypothetical viral outbreak that could threaten the continued existence of all human life: the issue at hand — how to conceal evidence of liquidating up to a million human beings. So what’s up is not much of a mystery: they’ve been hired to plan a genocide. Why the hush-hush? The company is concerned about being charged with crimes against humanity.

This ‘shocking’ revelation comes too early to be a spoiler, and you figure it out pretty early on. And the solution to the quandary is not surprising. How do you hide a million bodies? I came up with the solution that this supposedly crack corporate team did — and I was about fifteen minutes ahead of them.

The real enigma here is making sense of the script’s conceit that someone planning a genocide would have outsourced it to this gang. If you are going to wage an extermination, best hand off the planning to those who helped put it together and believe in its necessity, its desirability. The criminals should have an animus toward those they plan to murder en masse. The hundreds of thousands who assisted the Holocaust, as well as the millions who knowingly benefited from expropriated property and slave labor were, of course, anti-Semites who believed that their great national destiny was to rid the world of Jews. By the time the first extermination camp was opened in 1942, anti-Semitic violence, including organized mass-murder by police battalions, had become so normalized that the hordes of murderers often mailed photographs of their deeds home to family and sweethearts.

Besides that, the notion that a genocide can be concealed in the “media age” displays plenty of naïveté. “The media” – especially the international media — are largely concentrated in the cosmopolitan cities  (first class hotels and other amenities are the draw). So the Bosnian Genocide (1992-95) received media attention because journalists could easily commute back between the war and the cities of northern Italy – while journalists could not easily approach the Kurdish genocide (1986-89) or any number of genocides that occurred during the 1990s in Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, East Timor, or Guatemala. Even with the world watching, Dutch soldiers under UN command in Srebrenica were easily persuaded to hand over the Bosnians under their so-called protection —  to be raped and murdered by the Army of Republika Srpska.

Also, despite what Loeb’s characters have convinced themselves of, there are no shortage of governments, pundits, and conspiracy theorists who are more than willing to deny or minimize highly publicized genocides.  Of course, the evil depths to which humanity can sink (with enthusiasm) is a prime subject for satire – and playwright Aaron Loeb is spot-on when writing about a vicious corporate world in which loyalty is maintained through non-disclosure agreements. Expandability is rampant; you are only as secure as the size of your compensation package. This is Loeb’s wheelhouse; in his day job, he serves as President of studios at the video game developer FoxNext. But expertise at managing video game versions of figures from media franchises such as Alien, Avatar, and Marvel Comics is not a strength when writing about genocide.

Loeb could have taken some risks in Ideation. Or maybe not; he does have a high profile day job in the entertainment industry. He could have, at some point, dared to identify the murderous client as a real-world government, political party, or non-state actor (like Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Islamic State) that has stated  its desire to exterminate groups of people. Maybe one of the consultants could confide that he or she thinks some genocides are justifiable, or necessary, or even has strong sympathies with the client and distaste for the people on the kill list. But that would given Ideation a semblance of conflict. Instead, we are fed ‘thriller’ melodramatics: the conference room becomes increasingly paranoid as the characters (predictably) become worried that the killing apparatus they’ve been tasked to build is going to be turned on them because they know too much.

Ryan Bates’ scenic design eschews the right-angle whenever possible, using scalene triangle and irregular quadrilaterals and pentagons to evoke the disruptive energy of the corporate world – but the bland blacks, whites and grays, as well as the space’s meticulous cleanliness, make it clear that the conventional is the true order of the day.

Dewey Dellay’s sound design (which includes a nice bit of alternative pop) ends up relying too much on the auditorium’s sound system; why not make more use of the electronic devices that are part of the conference room table? Or carried in by the characters? Cell phones, etc. Furthermore, when J.D. is heard during a call with Hannah, the obvious editing glitches are sloppy.

Director Jim Petosa and his actors keep the action moving at a fast clip, hoping that quicksilver pacing will divert us from the weaknesses of the plot. While the cast is solid, Loeb’s flair for snappy dialogue stops well short of creating multi-dimensional characterization – Ideation is filled with the stereotypes that populate countless workplace comedies and dramas. Brock is the stereotypical alpha-male. Hannah, the one woman on the team, is – no surprise! – defined by the fact she is having an affair with one of the men. Sandeep, as the token not-white guy (he’s on a work visa), only awakens when he figures out that people “who look like me” might be the ultimate target. (Too bad Loeb doesn’t show more than superficial interest in the ethno-religious politics of South Asia.) Ted’s relaxed southern drawl signifies that he’s not as high strung as everyone else; Scooter is the archetypal over-confident intern. It’d be nice to see Wheeler, Hamel, Ketai, Hoopman, and Murphy challenged by with some genuinely dark material — instead of Loeb’s faux-darkness.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report

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