Since the staged reading of “Ideation” at the prestigious Bay Area Playwrights Festival in 2012, Aaron Loeb — one of the Bay Area’s best playwrights — has simplified and streamlined his script about a team of industrial and systems engineers working on a mysterious, secretive assignment.
In its world premiere as part of San Francisco Playhouse’s new-plays Sandbox Series, under the astute direction of Josh Costello and with a crack acting ensemble, it’s as fast and funny as two of Loeb’s other works that have also premiered at the Playhouse, “First Person Shooter” and “Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party.”
“Ideation” offers a picture of contemporary paranoia run amok that’s all too apt in our era of WikiLeaks and whistle-blowing and of constantly realizing that we don’t know what we don’t know.
Tough-cookie supervisor Hannah (Carrie Paff) and three employees of a management consultant firm — which is headed up by a director whom we never see (a la “Charlie’s Angels”) are brainstorming a new assignment: to design a system for disposal of dead bodies. Millions of them. Some of them not dead — yet.
Is the client the government? Maybe. Is the project really theoretical, and is its goal really to save humanity in case of a deadly virus outbreak, as the consultants have been informed? They, and we, become increasingly unsure.
As their ideation session progresses, fitfully, they begin to question all they’ve been told, and not told. How these educated professionals handle the ethical ambiguities of such an iffy assignment makes for provocative, and highly theatrical, entertainment.
There’s lots of wheel-spinning going on among the engineers — frantic math equations scribbled on the whiteboard and just as frantically erased, hasty retreats to Starbucks for more coffee — as the characters become ever more mired in suspicion. Costello ratchets up the tension to a comically absurd, even Kafkaesque, degree.
Along the way, an underling (Ben Euphrat) is high-handedly fired, a team member (Jason Kapoor) goes out for a walk and doesn’t return, two others (Michael Ray Wisely and Mark Anderson Phillips) lose control and end up in fisticuffs. The relationships among these discrete personalities are part of what make the play, with its web of unnervingly convoluted ideas, so theatrical.
Played out on Alicia Griffiths’ smart, black-and-chrome conference room set, with actors this good, Loeb’s play simply soars, leaving the audience disconcertingly up in the air. Which is definitely the way it is.
Presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Where: Tides Theatre, 533 Sutter St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; closes Dec. 7