SF Playhouse’s ‘Ideation’ fails to be fully realized

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After a year’s worth of tweaking since its rough-draft debut, “Ideation” arrived at the San Francisco Playhouse on Saturday night for a maiden performance. In almost every sense, it’s a very minimalist production. This is clear upon entering the theater, where the audience is met with a sparse set — there are office chairs, a conference table, a whiteboard and some backlit windows, all forming the atmosphere of a bland, standard business room. This setting does not change for the play’s duration.

Of course, the notion of a single-set play is far from new. Still, with it comes the assumption that the solitary set will be used in some remarkable way — that the creative forces behind the play have a few ambitious cards up their sleeves. After all, director Josh Costello has been around the Shakespearean block a fair number of times. Meanwhile, writer Aaron Loeb is no stranger to accolades, considering the success of his previous work “Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party,” which scored wins at the Bay Area Theater Critics Circle Awards and the New York International Fringe Festival, plus a nomination at the GLAAD Media Awards.

In this case, however, Costello and Loeb’s ambition may have caused them to stretch too far, because the titular “ideation” basically yields 90 minutes of thinly spread, disjointed ideas, never leading to much in the way of fruition.

It kicks off like this: Four businesspeople, whose jobs are equal parts important and nondescript, trickle into their workplace. There’s Hannah (Carrie Paff), the spirited moral compass; there’s Ted (Michael Ray Wisely), the grounded, vaguely Southern one; there’s Brock (Mark Anderson Phillips), the goofy straight shooter who channels the spirit of Ed Helms, and there’s Sandeep (Jason Kapoor), the token workplace non-Caucasian sans personality (see any number of fictional office settings). There’s also the inept intern, Scooter (Ben Euphrat), who provides a baseline for the office hierarchy before splitting for most of the story.

Once the plot starts, the ensuing array of hectic arguments attempts to funnel more craziness into the minimalist format than it can actually handle. As it turns out, the core four’s mission for the day is all too shady for their liking, and paranoia begins to take hold. What if the “hypothetical” plan for human disposal they’ve been hired to draft is meant to be used? What if it’s a test or a conspiracy? And what if one of their supposed colleagues is secretly in on it? Factions form and dissolve. Romance is showcased for long enough to fill a scene. Vague ideas are forged from iffy logic, treated as fact for a while and then disregarded.

Plot aside — a bit like in the play itself — some of the performances are sturdy enough to provide support for the experience. For instance, Phillips’ role as the resident jester, Brock, while sometimes cloying, is the most authentic and entertaining of the show. The chameleonic flexibility of his voice is shown when he’s mocking his coworkers, but even Brock’s overconfident facade comes to a vulnerable cracking point in moments of uncertainty.

On a similar token, Wisely’s portrayal of Ted lays down a foundation of down-to-earth levelheadedness. His persona, his ideas, his words and his lightly twanged voice are all conservatively understated. In essence, he plays the straight man to Brock’s joker, the character foil to help keep the latter’s reheated shtick nice and warm.

“Ideation” poses some interesting questions about human nature, especially in the superior orders dilemma of Nuremberg infamy. But mostly, the play is repetitive when trying to generate interest, stale when trying for humor and cheesy when trying to be provocative.

“Ideation” is playing at the San Francisco Playhouse until Nov. 8.

Contact Erik Weiner at [email protected].