Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's recent review of 1776
And as three men in black designer suits, close-cropped beards, and extremely dark sunglasses (looking a bit like a gym-fit set of "Blues Brothers") enter the silver-walled conference room with their Starbucks ventis in hand, the scene is set for Aaron Loeb's spell-binding, dark comedy Ideation. Waiting for them are a smartly dressed woman, clearly with authority written all over her, and a college-age dude barely shaving and not wearing socks. After a few perfunctory hellos (and one snarky "Who and what are you?" directed at the kid sitting at the table as if he actually belonged there), this exceptionally well acted, well directed play kicks into full gear at City Lights Theater Company.
The team of high-powered, probably high-paid management consultants gathers for a top-secret project handed them by their boss, J.D., whose presence is dominant in their minds but is never seen (with his oily voice only heard from periodic phone calls). In real time that coincides with the one-act play, they are to produce a recommended set of actions to respond to a hypothetical scenario full of mystery and global impact, where one of their ground rule assumptions is "assume the worst."
Diving right into the problem with their dry-ink pens drawing madly and their black erasers in the ready, the team members soon are throwing about jargon-rich terms (that must help earn them the big bucks) like "vision holder," "spit-balling," and "reverse engineering the assignment." They are also drawing 4x4 matrices with smiley and frowny faces as their sophisticated means of evaluating posited options. In-team acronyms pepper the ever intense, volume-rising blue-skying of ideas (like CRFDWS: "crazy rich folks do weird shit").
As new out-of-the-box possibilities are tossed madly into the fray, the resulting, rambunctious, playground-like scene of enthusiasm evolves into something often looking like a "Saturday Night Live" skit. Eyes widen to the point of popping out of heads, arms flail wildly about, and facial expressions are sometimes more like those found in a cartoon than a conference room.
But as they dig deeper into their increasingly creepy assignment, more and more ethical issues pop up to show their troubling heads for what they actually may (or may not) be providing a solution. Each new formula of what might be really going on begins to lead members to suspect each other with growing distrust as being the actual insiders to some unknown, massive conspiracy.
Who is in the know while everyone else on team is still in the dark becomes the new problem to solve. Paranoia becomes a team epidemic. Little things take on huge proportions: Why did he suddenly leave to jump into that black car? Why are you wearing black gloves? Did she just say something similar to what J.D. once said? And words like "containment," "liquidation," and "disposal" loom heavier and heavier over the entire room.
Veteran member of both the San Francisco and New York casts of the Glickman winning Ideation (for best new play premiering in the Bay Area), director Mark Anderson Phillips brings intimate knowledge and terrific insight and imagination into this City Lights production. To carry out both his sometimes silly, often darkly comic inspirations as well as a mounting air of threatening foreboding that he weaves masterfully from Aaron Loeb's brilliant script, this director is blessed with a cast well suited for the undertaking.
City Lights Artistic Director Lisa Mallette steps into the role of actress as team boss Hannah (but on this team, as supposedly just a member and collaborator). To the role, she ably brings the wide range of emotional calm, passion, sensuality, and frantic madness that the part demands. Her Hannah is often the adult in the room, full of coaching wisdom and supportive nuggets, but she can also become the first to degenerate into a raving mad kid who is thinking of "me first" when push starts to come to shove.
Rivaling her for command of the group is designated team leader Brock, a strikingly handsome (and he knows it) ex-athlete of the Ivy League and full of confident ego and bravado. George Psarras underlines Brock's bombastic declarations with animated, full-body emphasissometimes with motions quite similar to a college cheerleader on the field of competitive play.
The seasoned member of the team, suburban family man, and proud father of his soccer-playing daughter, Ted (Tom Gough), uses his Southern drawl with its punctuated consonants and elongated vowels to make his points heard. He adds some down home flavor to the highly artificial, sterile conference setting with suggestions like "Let's try this just for shits and giggles." But Ted, like Hannah and Brock, can quickly come apart at the seams in both great outbursts of inflamed indignation and slumped fear of possible self-ruin, as the team delves ever deeper into scarier scenario upon scenario.
Sophisticated by birth, newer on the team, and equally capable as his teammates of wide emotional swings is India-born and accent-rich Sandeep. Sunny Moza plays a delicious combination of smart, sexy, and sure-of-himself and brings an exotic air of possible mystery and secrets (including hots for the team boss).
Hannah's intern, Scooterwho thinks nothing about taking a selfie in front of the whiteboard as the senior members of the team file inwastes no time sitting at the table with the others, crossing his long legs as he leans back with a smug smile. Max Tachis is hilarious as the kid who cannot seem to remember that his real role is to fetch coffee for his boss and as the one whose cocky confidence balanced by big, toothy, goofy smiles becomes an automatic target for the others to go after.
Ron Gasparinetti's raised-platform conference room (surrounded by Nick Kumamoto's beautifully recessed lighting) has an appropriate air of corporate sterility and high budgets, with its metallic walls reflecting light in waves and spirals. Jane Lambert has dressed this cast with clothes right out of high-paid consultant closets, except for the hipper college kid, Scooter, whose tight pants and razor-thin tie are his way of dressing up in today's business world. George Psarras provides a sound backdrop that immediately alerts us that there is something modern and maybe menacing coming soon. All in all, the creative team hits the mark all around.
The outlandish possibilities flouted about have too many bits of troubling plausibility tucked into them for us to say that Ideation is just a sci-fi, comic thriller. Premiering in 2014, Aaron Loeb's play is unfortunately even more grippingly alarming just three years later, given some of the directions our national and international worlds seem to be going. City Lights Theater Company stages a funny, horrifying Ideation that cannot help but engender timely, follow-up discussions that need to occur.
Ideation continues through February 19, 2017 at City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. Second Street, San Jose. Tickets are available online at cltc.org or by calling 408-295-4200.