It's been a little over a year since the San Francisco Playhouse moved one block down to its swanky and spacious new digs at the erstwhile Post Street Theatre. Since the new digs didn't come with a second stage, a question arose during the move: What would become of the Sandbox Series, the company's program of small-scale world premieres? Since the move, those plays (two per season) have been staged in several different locations: one show was at SF Playhouse's former second stage on Sutter Street where they'd been performed previously (now the Un-Scripted Theater) and the next was at the ACT Costume Shop. Now the company visits its own former main stage, the new home of Tides Theatre, for its latest Sandbox world premiere, Ideation.
The show is a callback to Playhouse history in at least one other way as well. It's the theater's third premiere by Bay Area playwright Aaron Loeb, after the hit productions of First Person Shooter and Abraham Lincoln's Big, Gay Dance Party.
"Ideation" is just a fancy word for idea generation, a particularly organized method of brainstorming. In the play, a team of management consultants is tasked with coming up with a strategy for a project that's at best highly morally questionable and possibly monstrous. At first they seem amusingly oblivious to the horrific implications of what they're talking about, even blithely cracking jokes about it. But as they methodically work through how the project would work and who exactly would need to know about it, they realize how little they know about what they're working on.
Carrie Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips and Michael Ray Wisely in Ideation
In another world, Ideation might be a suspense thriller. You have the frequently shaken sense of how the world works, the growing paranoia and the ever-shifting sense of who might be in on it, if there even is an "it" to be in on. But as creepy as it is, it's also hilarious, especially in director Josh Costello's sharp staging with a stellar cast.
Carrie Paff balances brisk self-assurance with harried exasperation as Hannah, the upper-level management representative at the meeting. (Everyone's clad in sharp business attire by costumer Michelle Mal.) She's especially frustrated with Scooter, the useless assistant foisted on her by the CEO as a favor to the kid's rich and powerful father. Played with an oblivious grin and breezy sense of entitlement by Ben Euphrat, the kid is infuriatingly indifferent to his actual job tasks as he keeps inserting himself in the conversation to play with the big boys.
Michael Ray Wisely, Jason Kapoor and Carrie Paff in Ideation
Mark Anderson Phillips is pricelessly entertaining as Brock, the project leader, a self-satisfied wheeler-dealer whose wheels are constantly turning from one direction to another, whether he's mercilessly mocking someone or zooming through an increasingly intricate mental maze of doomsday scenarios. Michael Ray Wisely is wry and shrewd as Southern-accented business veteran Ted, a dogged pragmatist who gets as caught up in mental exercises as the next guy, but just wants to get back to work. Jason Kapoor is smart, subdued and sensitive as Sandeep, the junior member of the team. Sometimes heard (as voiced by Clive Worsley) but never seen, the CEO nevertheless looms over the entire proceeding, as the team has to present its plan to him at the end of the play's 90 minutes.
Loeb's script is smart and funny and full of surprises, and Costello and the cast keep the suspense tight and the humor sharp. (Zaque Eyn's sound design makes particularly artful use of a Britney Spears song.) There's a lot of clever niggling over details and quibbles about word choices, such as "crematoriums" versus "crematoria." Holed up in Alicia Griffiths' simple meeting-room set, the consultants continue to use the same methods in their near-panic that they do when they're comfortable in their element, making liberal use of the whiteboard to chart out scenarios and options. If they're getting themselves in far deeper than they could have imagined, at least they're doing it in a methodical way.
Ideation runs through December 7, 2013 at Tides Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit sfplayhouse.org.
All photos: Jordan Puckett.