Theatre Exile's 'Ideation': Doomsday in the hands of consultants

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(Left to right:) Allen Radway, Harry Watermeier, Alex Hughes, D’Arcy Dersham, and William Zielinski in the Theatre Exile production of “Ideation,” through Nov. 5.

I looked it up. “Ideation: the capacity for or the act of forming or entertaining ideas.” But the word seems to have desperate and sinister associations, usually attached to words like suicidal or paranoiac. What has any of this to do with Theatre Exile’s season opener, Ideation by Aaron Loeb? Well, plenty.

A stark set (designed by Colin McIlvaine): a conference room with whiteboard walls and a supply of erasable pens. No PowerPoint, nothing digitally traceable. Scooter (Harry Watermeier) is sitting at the oval table, jiggling his legs nervously. Hannah (D’Arcy Dersham) enters, followed by the team: Brock (the outstanding Alan Radway) of the Ricky Roma school of business, who swaggers in, announcing: “The Boys are Back in Town.” He is followed by Ted (William Zielinski) and Sandeep (Alex Hughes). This will make Glengarry Glen Ross look like child’s play, since it isn’t real estate at stake but the future of the human race. Or not.

The team has been tasked with creating a plan; phrases like liquidation facility and Total Extinction Event and — my favorite — toxic bio-sludge are bandied about as the team tries to create a response to the possibility of a killer virus that may or may not exist. But all this is just “early ideating.” They have 90 minutes until the meeting with JD the CEO, and as those minutes tick by, the sets and subsets get wilder and more fantastic as they try to “reverse-engineer” the problem and debate “buying into the premise.” It’s a fiesta of obscurantist argot, where these management consultants are revealed to be self-interested and easily swayed: “No one rational would bet the fate of the world on us.” Or would they? Or have they?

This is a play that races along, both terrifying and amusing, piling on mysterious events that are left unexplained; it becomes impossible to know what or whom to trust. Is there a legitimate way to pass a loyalty test, or is the very act of taking such a test proof of disloyalty?

Joe Canuso has directed this strong cast with just the right ambiguity of tone — this is Springtime for Hitler for the digital age. Even more speed would make the play feel even more urgent and baffling, especially since their paranoia is catching: Ideation grows more and more disquieting as the “scenarios” of what to do with two million bodies become more and more bizarre, leaving us with a superbly inconclusive conclusion.

Ideation. Through Nov. 5 at Theatre Exile, Latvian Society, 531 N. 7th St. Tickets: $10-$50. Information: 215-218-4022, theatreexile.org.