Paradigm. Synergy. Ideation. This is the lingo of the modern workplace. In a play by Aaron Loeb, a video-game designer as well as a playwright, this obscure, tactical language becomes the vehicle for something pretty questionable.
The play “Ideation” is about a group of consultants at a firm brainstorming or “ideating” the design of a hypothetical system intended to kill and dispose of millions of people.
Like I said, questionable.
At first it’s a reasonable, if strange, assignment. After all, what if there were a virus that would kill anyone it infected, so the doomed needed to be quarantined to save humanity?
Besides, designing the system is an assignment from the boss. It’s their job.
That’s the justification at least. It doesn’t take the group long to start considering other, more frightening options. The discussion descends into a spiral of paranoia and game theory: should they design the system and risk that someone might actually use it for evil, or should they risk ending their careers? How can they optimize the outcomes?
The characters diagram various possibilities on the board, but each new revelation brings up new concerns: what if it’s all a conspiracy? What if it’s an even bigger conspiracy than that? How big of a conspiracy can it even be?
The play takes place in real time on the stage, with no skips or gaps in time or location. The continuity of the plot adds to the feeling of desperation as the group awaits the presentation of their preliminary ideas to their offstage boss, a disembodied voice reached by Skype call, about an hour and a half after the play begins.
It isn’t all paranoia and suspense, though. In fact, one publication classed “Ideation” as “a corporate farce,” while another called it “a gripping satire.”
And it is funny. But it’s a much darker comedy than most humorous plays. The layers upon layers of paranoid suspicion definitely cross the line into “ridiculous,” but they’re sinister nonetheless.
As the debate becomes increasingly heated, the characters begin suspecting one another of conspiring against the rest. Each character knows only what he or she knows, since it’s impossible to reach into the minds of others to prove that they don’t know more.
At one point, two of the consultants start physically fighting, flinging Post-it notes and highlighters at each other and chasing each other around the table at the center of the set.
It’s a juxtaposition of a brand of physical humor with the overall tension of the situation.
It’s like a sitcom, but if sitcoms were routinely about the Manhattan Project or the Nazis organizing their death machine.
Of course, the best, most nuanced writing in the world is nothing without a strong cast. Actors Carrie Paff, Jason Kuykendall, Peter Mohrmann and Jimmy Sidhu certainly deliver in their parts as the supervisor and three consultants respectively. While Paff is new to Capital Stage, the rest have been in previous productions. Their performances were powerful, to say the least, and I often found myself perched on the edge of my chair, scarcely remembering to breathe.
The play is fairly short, only about an hour and a half, with no intermission. While it’s probably not suitable for young children, or perhaps even the young at heart, high schoolers and older will enjoy it.
“Ideation” is showing at Capital Stage (2215 J St.) through Feb. 22, on Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.