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It makes sense that professionals in a given field use highly specific language to discuss specialized topics. But just about anyone who’s worked in an American office has witnessed (and been conscripted into) the use of language to obfuscate rather than clarify.
Jargon can engender a patina of professionalism for an underdeveloped idea. Using slang of any kind — from talking about getting lit to leveraging core competencies — is also a way to signal insider status amid a group. And at its most ominous, professional jargon becomes a form of euphemism to obscure an unpleasant point while perhaps even implying its opposite. So a company firing a bunch of people is merely “rightsizing” or “reducing operating costs.” Sounds good: You’ve onboarded me into alignment with your solve.
“Ideation,” a relentlessly smart and probing play by Aaron Loeb receiving its regional debut at New Repertory Theatre through Sept. 24, is in some respects a study of office jargon taken to the extreme: How great is the horror that can be masked with euphemism? And moreover, how far will people trust institutional structures and professional norms when those are in conflict with their more elemental understanding of right and wrong?
“Ideation” depicts a work session — make that the ideation process — of a group of highly successful management consultants. The pressure is on because their company’s CEO has demanded a summary, in 90 minutes, of an ostensibly hypothetical system whose basics they’re still miles away from settling on.
The stages of the system are listed on a whiteboard: ID, collection, containment, liquidation, disposal. Sounds sterile and safe enough, until someone asks what they're "going to do with all the bodies.” That would be the disposal part.
The play happens in real time as these professionals analyze the puzzle they’ve been given and follow forking trails of logic toward increasingly unsettling conclusions. Wait — are they on the verge of a major professional achievement? Or endangering their own safety? A bit of both?
As the session turns darker, the team members keep applying their business school training. They have a seemingly limitless amount of thought experiments at the ready to game out possible outcomes. The higher the stakes, the more anodyne the language, until finally, moral calculations are proposed with simple math. This leads us to laugh-or-cry moments like a solemn pledge of loyalty at an emotionally fraught moment: “I swear on the lives of my children that V is equal to 1.”
Director Jim Petosa and his five-person cast work very well with Loeb’s wordy script. It must have been no small feat to map out the pacing of this one-act such that these characters can keep tunneling deeper into the thickets of competing conspiracy theories without leaving the audience hopelessly behind.
Christine Hamel is Hannah, a behind-the-scenes professional who is nominally in charge but mainly there to keep combustible project leader Brock (Lewis D. Wheeler) on track. Ed Hoopman is Ted, a stick-to-basics sort who revealingly chafes at the thought of being considered “a monster” for simply doing his job. Matt Ketai is Sandeep, the youngest consultant; an Indian national, he is more skeptical than his co-workers at assumptions of American military benevolence. Jake Murphy is convincingly bro-ish in the enigmatic role of Scooter, a junior employee who is deemed either inconsequential to the project or, perhaps, a crucial player.
Their performances are particularly engaging when the esprit de corps of the team starts withering under mutual suspicion. Loeb asks: What series of alternatives will the brain rush toward in place of confronting a more obvious but more difficult problem?
As presented by New Rep, “Ideation” is very much a companion piece with C.P. Taylor’s “Good” last season, also directed by Petosa, who is New Rep’s artistic director. Political theorist Hannah Arendt’s insights into “the banality of evil” apply to both “Good” and “Ideation.”
In “Good,” an educated, reasonable man becomes a Nazi by degrees. If he made himself willfully oblivious to the evil he was abetting, the upwardly mobile professionals in “Ideation” are highly conscious of the ethical maze they’re charging through; one even references the (in)famous Milgram experiments regarding obedience and authority, in which participants thought they were administering painful electric shocks to fellow volunteers and went along with it, swayed to a degree by the authority imparted by some authority figures' official-looking lab coats.
When asked to apply best practices to a potential genocide, to what extent will people lean on their shared professional expectations as justification for ethically dubious behavior? Does today's corporate culture even allow for an answer that does not lead toward atrocity? "Laugh about it, cry about it," Brock rationalizes at one point, earning a roomful of nodding heads, "the job's the job."
Loeb cleverly dots the play with little moments that could prove more or less sinister depending on how you choose to work the story out. “Ideation” doesn’t offer any answers, but its questions are mostly riveting.
New Repertory Theatre's "Ideation" is on at the Mosesian Center for the Arts through Sept. 24.