‘Ideation’ and the dark places it might lead (Theatre Exile)

In Theatre Exile's production of

In Theatre Exile's production of "Ideation," from left: D’Arcy Dersham, Alex Hughes, William Zielinski and Allen Radway. (Photo courtesy of Paola Nogueras)

Business leaders, you have to have a plan! It’s all about providing a product and performing a service. Manufacture it efficiently. Package it attractively. Transport it, distribute it, get rid of the waste. Somewhere.

That’s what the planning’s all about in Aaron Loeb’s shrewd play called “Ideation,” which Theatre Exile opened last night in a deliciously tense production directed by Joe Canuso, the company’s founder. In “Ideation” — a babble-speak word that means creating a concept — management consultants strung higher than a transformer line try to devise a process for their product by plowing through any business model they can conjure. And in 90 minutes the CEO (the voice of Steve Wolfson, a real former corporate chief) expects the team of consultants to present a plan.

In this case, the product is death.

But before we get into that, consider this: One of the team members (played by William Zielinski) has to get out in time for his daughter’s soccer game. Another one, a young management whiz from India (Alex Hughes) is figuring out how to continue a not-so-secret tryst with his superior, the de facto team leader (D’Arcy Dersham). And they all have to deal with Scooter.

Scooter (Harry Watermeier) is a business graduate student at a middling school, hired as an intern because he’s the son of a corporation board member. The CEO has assigned him to take notes for the team as they plot the details of a mega-top-secret scheme that sounds horrific, although we’re not sure what it is at first. Scooter, naive boy, asks questions that hint at moral responsibility. The team hates him.

Especially the most arrogant team member (Allen Radway), so angry at such temerity that he gets the kid fired as their meeting begins. That will mean trouble down the road.

But not probably what you think. Loeb is a crafty playwright, inventive with a plot and manipulative in an effective way. We don’t even blink when an intern’s assigned to a mum-only meeting — it feels realistic in a culture topped by mutual back-scratchers. The production, unfolding on Colin McIlvaine’s office set with white-board walls for note-displays, skips along as the management consultants plan to control a viral epidemic that may or may not break out.

Their task: Figure out a way to round up infected people, maybe a million of them. Make them disappear in complete secret. The team members haven’t a clue how to bring this it off, but they’re convinced this project will save humanity, and overly confident that they can plan anything. They’re management consultants, right?

But they are trapped in the contradictions of their own business models. They’re tasked with preventing human extinction by creating a process for human destruction. Their uncomfortable discussions — and the moral morass they try to navigate by pretending to work on a higher plane — begin to haunt them. Who can they believe? The bosses who ordered the project? Each other?

Loeb mixes the team’s professional details with the personal ones, and “Ideation” is at times mildly amusing in a dark way that’s not fully funny. The play’s real strength — and the production’s, too, with a bang-up cast — comes from the conundrum it poses by pitting the greater good against a great evil. A lot of little riddles follow, but they’re no less vexing. In the end, who can you trust when the stakes are so high?

“Ideation,” produced by Theatre Exile, runs through Nov. 5 at the theater inside the Latvian Society, Seventh and Spring Garden streets. 215-218-4022 or theatreexile.org

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